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‘White Lives Matter’ member gets 18 years for firebombing church that planned drag events

‘White Lives Matter’ member gets 18 years for firebombing church that planned drag events

WASHINGTON — A member of the pro-Nazi group White Lives Matter was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for firebombing an Ohio church that had been planning to host two drag events.

Aimeen Penny, 20, a far-right extremist from Ohio, was arrested last year after he made Molotov cocktails and threw them at the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, on March 25.

Penny pleaded guilty in October to a church arson hate crime, as well as to using fire and explosives to commit a felony. U.S. District Judge Bridget Meehan Brennan sentenced Penny to a total of 216 months in prison Monday.

In a sentencing memo, federal prosecutors said that church burnings “have a long and sordid history in the United States” and that burning a church “is as potent a symbol of hate as burning a cross on a lawn or leaving a hanging noose.” According to prosecutors, Penny had traveled to Wadsworth, Ohio, in advance of a drag queen story hour to distribute propaganda flyers for the group. In an interview with the FBI, Penny “stated that he would have felt better if the Molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground,” prosecutors wrote.

Appearing in court for the sentencing, Penny did not apologize, and he justified his actions as protecting children, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Prosecutors said Penny was a member of the White Lives Matter group, which they described as having “racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views.”

Inside Penny’s vehicle, prosecutors wrote, authorities found an “M4 A1 Carbine 5.56mm assault rifle with scope, 7 rifle magazines containing 5.56mm ammunition, a Ruger handgun, 3 magazines containing 9mm ammunition, a tactical vest, a shield, and 3 knives in sheaths,” while a search of his residence found “a Glock 9mm handgun, 4 magazines containing 9 mm ammunition, a Smith and Wesson MP-15 rifle, a Walther Pistol Model P22, Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works 12-gauge shotgun, 15 magazines loaded with ammunition, various boxes of ammunition, and Nazi memorabilia.”

Penny, the FBI said, wrote a “manifesto” that took pride in the attack, claiming that he “was respected for it” in jail. The document was “full of twisted and false historical narratives, calls for war and violence, justifications for his actions, and the spewing of transphobic and anti-Semitic hatred,” prosecutors said.

Penny believed that he was doing “God’s work” and that he “steered history” by attacking the church, prosecutors said. Penny, authorities said, appeared to have been “increasingly radicalized via online interactions since at least 2017” and “gravitated towards Nazi ideology and white supremacist groups.”

Matthew G. Olsen, the assistant attorney general for national security, said that the sentence “holds Mr. Penny accountable for carrying out violence against an Ohio church because he disagreed with the way congregants chose to express their beliefs” and that “acts of extremist violence have no place in our communities.”

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said officials hoped the “significant sentence sends a clear and resounding message that this type of hate-fueled attack against a church will not be tolerated” in America.

“This defendant tried to burn down a church simply because its members created space for and provided support to the LGBTQ+ community,” Clarke said. “The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute such senseless, bias-motivated violence against people exercising their constitutionally protected right to practice their religion and express their beliefs.”

Ryan J. Reilly

Ryan J. Reilly is a justice reporter for NBC News.

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