Member of pro-Nazi group used Molotov cocktails in attempt to burn down Ohio church planning to host a drag event, FBI says

Editor’s note (October 24, 2023): Since this story was published, Penny pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and for using fire and explosives to commit a felony, according to the Department of Justice and court records. He faces up to 20 years in prison for the first charge and a mandatory 10 years for the second, the DOJ says. His sentencing is scheduled for January 2024.

A member of a neo-Nazi group was arrested Friday after attempting to burn down a church in Ohio that was planning to host a drag show event, according to court documents.

Aimenn D. Penny, 20, of Alliance, Ohio, has been charged in the US District Court in Cleveland with one count of malicious use of explosive materials and one count of possessing a destructive device, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities claim Penny used “Molotov cocktails against the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, in an attempt to burn the church to the ground,” the Department of Justice said in a press release.

“As alleged in the charging documents, the defendant used an explosive device to cause harm to a church he found objectionable,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in the release. “It is the solemn duty of the Department of Justice to safeguard the right of all Americans to free expression, and I commend the work of law enforcement in this matter.”

Burn marks are seen on the door of the Community Church of Chesterland (CCC), in Chesterland, Ohio. - WEWS
Burn marks are seen on the door of the Community Church of Chesterland (CCC), in Chesterland, Ohio. - WEWS

The FBI claims Penny is a member of “White Lives Matter,” a pro-Nazi group, according to an affidavit filed in court Friday. The FBI said the group has “racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views.”

Penny confessed he attempted to burn down the church using Molotov cocktails, “to protect the children and stop the drag show event,” according to the criminal complaint.

CNN has reached out to an attorney appointed to represent Penny but did not receive an immediate response. Penny made his initial appearance in federal court Friday and was remanded in custody. He is due to face a court hearing on Thursday, Michelle Sztul, the chief deputy clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Cleveland, told CNN.

The affidavit alleges the Ohio church was targeted in the early hours of Saturday, March 25. The FBI said the church was damaged by what appeared to be Molotov cocktails and had scorch marks on the front door, scorch marks on a sign on the exterior of the building and a broken sign on the southeast corner of the property.

Investigators recovered broken glass pieces from a vodka bottle and a beer bottle each containing a cloth-type material, the affidavit said. A burnt matchstick and a blue plastic spray bottle filled with gasoline were found near the damaged door.

Law enforcement agencies obtained a court order to collect historical location data from Penny’s cellphone after receiving a tip, the affidavit said. While searching Penny’s home, agents found a Nazi flag and other Nazi memorabilia, a handwritten note with ideological statements, a White Lives Matter of Ohio T-shirt, a gas mask, multiple rolls of blue painter’s tape and gas cans, the document says.

The affidavit also said Penny traveled to Wadsworth, Ohio, on March 11, where he attended a drag queen story hour to “distribute propaganda flyers (sic)representing White Lives Matter Ohio’s anti-drag queen views.”

The Community Church of Chesterland, located in Geauga County, went ahead with hosting the drag queen story hour and brunch event Saturday, the church’s minister told CNN.

Rev. Jess Peacock said it’s not the first time the church has been targeted. They said representatives of the church have in recent weeks received hate mail and messages containing threats of protests and violence over planned drag events.

“There hasn’t been a day or two where I have not received hate messages from my personal phone,” Peacock said.

Peacock said they are “relieved” and “very pleased” over Friday’s arrest. No one was inside the church during the attempted firebombing and drag show events will go ahead there as planned, Peacock added.

“We hold no ill will against this man whatsoever. We forgive this individual. But we do want this individual to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Just to send a message and have them think twice about attacking a synagogue, a church or a mosque. We want to see peace, not violence,” Peacock said.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio said, “Violence and destruction are never an acceptable way to express a disagreement with a particular viewpoint.”

“While, as Americans, we enjoy the right to disagree, doing so peacefully is the only appropriate option,” Baeppler said.

If convicted, Penny may face a mandatory minimum of five years and up to 20 years in prison for the malicious use of explosive materials charge and up to 10 years in prison for the possession of a destructive device charge, according to the DOJ.

Samantha Beech and Celina Tebor contributed to this story.

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