Jan 31, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ohio man who firebombed church for hosting drag events sentenced

 A Drag performer reads a children's book at The Community Church of Chesterland's Drag Queen Story Hour in Chesterland, Ohio, in 2023 after the bombing threat.

A drag performer reads a children's book at the Community Church of Chesterland's Drag Queen Story Hour in Chesterland, Ohio, in April 2023 following the threats and an attack on the church. Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

An Ohio man was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for firebombing a church in an attempt to burn it down after it planned to host drag events last year, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

The big picture: Federal prosecutors said Aimenn D. Penny, 20, of Alliance, was a member of a "White Lives Matter" group in the state that held "racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views" when he threw two Molotov cocktails that he'd made earlier at the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, on March 25.

  • Penny, who pleaded guilty last year to the church arson hate crime and using fire and explosives to commit a felony, was "hoping to burn it to the ground," per a DOJ statement.
  • "Through Penny's guilty plea, he admitted to using force through fire and explosives, intending to obstruct CCC congregants in their enjoyment and expression of their religious beliefs."

Of note: Prosecutors said in a sentencing memo that Penny had traveled to Wadsworth, Ohio, on March 11 in "military style gear" ahead of a drag queen story hour "to distribute propaganda flyers" representing his group's anti-drag queen views before attending the event, where members reportedly shouted racist and homophobic slurs, along with "Heil Hitler."

  • Penny stated during an interview with the FBI "that he would have felt better if the Molotov cocktails were more effective and burned the entire church to the ground," per the memo.
  • He did not apologize in U.S. District Court during his sentencing on Monday and maintained he had staged a protest, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

What they're saying: "This 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," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division in a statement on Tuesday.

  • "Such acts of extremist violence have no place in our communities and the Justice Department is committed to bringing to justice those who would use or threaten violence to prevent their fellow citizens from freely exercising their fundamental rights."
  • The church said in a Facebook post Tuesday it's "relieved to be able to finally embrace some closure to what happened last year," but it added that it wasn't celebrating Penny's sentence. "It is a tragedy that ignorance and hate is going to put this young man's life on hold for almost 20 years," the post added.

Meanwhile, Penny's attorney, John Greven, told the Washington Post Tuesday he planned to appeal the length of the prison sentence and called his client "brainwashed" by misinformation.

Go deeper: Drag queen story hours increasingly on alert after threats, slurs

Go deeper