An Ohio man and member of the extremist White Lives Matter group was sentenced Monday to 18 years in prison for attempting to burn down an Ohio church that showed support for the LGBTQ community.
Aimenn Penny, 20, was arrested last year after he made Molotov cocktails and threw them at the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, on March 25. The church had planned to host two drag events the following weekend.
Federal prosecutors at the time said Penny, upset by the church’s support for the LGBTQ community, intended to burn the church to the ground.
Penny in October pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and to using fire and explosives to commit a felony, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. He was sentenced on Monday to 216 months in prison and three years of supervised release.
Church burnings “have a long and sordid history in the United States,” federal prosecutors wrote last week in a sentencing memo, and setting fire to a church “is as potent a symbol of hate as burning a cross on a lawn or leaving a hanging noose.”
“When Defendant Aimenn Penny threw Molotov cocktails at the Community Church of Chesterland, he joined this shameful history of hatred and attacked the heart of the local community, trying to intimidate and frighten those who disagreed with him,” prosecutors wrote.
Penny during an interview with the FBI said he was trying to protect children by stopping the drag event and wished the Molotov cocktails “were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground.” The church sustained only minimal damage from the attack.
Authorities during a subsequent search of Penny’s vehicle and residence found an assault rifle, three handguns, a shotgun, ammunition, a tactical vest, a shield, three knives in sheaths and Nazi memorabilia.
According to prosecutors, Penny is a member of White Lives Matter, an extremist group that espouses “racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views.” He was previously identified by local law enforcement in Wadsworth, Ohio, as one of several White Lives Matter members distributing propaganda flyers outside a drag queen story hour event on March 11.
Penny then attended the event, prosecutors wrote, “wearing military style gear including camouflage pants, a tactical vest, and jacket with a patch showing a firearm.”
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Penny since his arrest in March has been housed at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio. In April, the FBI intercepted letters and a “manifesto” Penny wrote in jail and attempted to transmit out of the facility.
“In them, Penny showed no remorse, but only pride in what he had done, even bragging that he ‘was respected for it’ in jail,” prosecutors wrote. Penny also attempted to send letters to members of the Blood Tribe, a neo-Nazi group, that urged violence against an upcoming drag event in Akron, Ohio.
Penny believed he was doing “God’s work” by burning the church, prosecutors wrote. They added that Penny, who set fire to the church after watching videos of drag shows on social media, had been “increasingly radicalized via online interactions since at least 2017.”
In a news release on Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Penny’s “significant sentence” should send “a clear and resounding message that this type of hate-fueled attack against a church will not be tolerated in our country.”
“Aimenn Penny will spend the next 18 years in prison because he committed crimes fueled by hate, attempting to burn down a church because its members supported the LGBTQI+ community,” said U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko for the Northern District of Ohio. “Hate crimes like Penny’s hurt not only the individual target, but the entire community, causing people to fear attack based on who they love and undermining the sense of safety within places of worship. Violent, bias-motivated extremism has no place in our country, and our office will aggressively prosecute those who commit such crimes.”
Drag events have been increasingly targeted by threats, violence and protests led by extremist groups. A June report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue recorded more than 200 instances of anti-drag mobilization in the U.S. between June 1, 2022, and May 20, including by local extremist and white supremacist groups.