An Ohio man who is a member of a White Lives Matter group told the FBI during an interview Friday he used Molotov cocktails on a church hoping to burn it down and stop a drag show, federal authorities allege.
Aimenn Penny, 20, of Alliance, was arrested last week and charged with one count of malicious use of explosive materials and one count of possessing a destructive device, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
A criminal complaint and affidavit said personnel with the Community Church of Chesterland reported March 25 that the church had been damaged during the night by what appeared to be Molotov cocktails. Personnel with the church believed the attack was connected to the “church’s planned hosting of two drag show events on April 1, 2023,” the complaint said.
Damage to the church included scorch marks on the front door, scorch marks on the exterior of the building, and a broken sign on the southeast corner of the property, the complaint said.
On its website, the house of worship said it is "a church of extravagant welcome, inclusion, and justice."
Chester Township Police recovered broken pieces of a Denaka vodka bottle and broken pieces of a Corona beer bottle. The bottles contained a cloth-type material that appeared to be pink or purple. A burnt matchstick and a blue plastic spray bottle filled with gasoline were found near the damaged door, the complaint said.
The FBI's Cleveland field office received information that Penny was responsible for the attack, the complaint said, and that he was a member of the Ohio branch of the White Lives Matter group.
Penny's attorney John Greven declined comment Monday.
“White Lives Matter is a group with racist, pro-Nazi, and homophobic views,” the complaint said. “At a March 11, 2023, drag queen event in Wadsworth, Ohio, members of White Lives Matter “showed up at the event carrying swastika flags and shouting racial and homophobic slurs and ‘Heil Hitler.’”
Penny went to Wadsworth before the March 11 drag queen event in order to distribute White Lives Matter fliers and the group's anti-drag queen views, according to the complaint.
He then attended the event as a protester and wore military-style clothes, including a tactical vest and camouflage pants, the complaint said.
Last October, Alliance police saw Penny posting fliers on their cruisers. He then told police about his disdain for Black people, the complaint said.
He "wanted to educate everyone about their violence toward white Americans," the complaint said. “He believed African Americans were solely responsible for the high crime rate across the country. Penny further made it clear that he believes — and looks forward to — the civil war coming between races."
Penny’s phone was examined following a court order and its GPS data showed the phone was in the vicinity of his home between 11 p.m. and about 11:30 p.m. March 24. However, between 1 a.m. and 1:31 a.m. March 25, the phone was on the site of the Community Church of Chesterland, the complaint said.
Authorities executed a search warrant on Penny’s home Friday and he spoke with the FBI, the complaint said.
He admitted he used Molotov cocktails on the church, the complaint said.
“Penny stated that he was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event. Penny described using bottles from his bedroom and detailed the ingredients and steps he used to build and use the devices. Penny stated that night he became more and more angry after watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church,” the complaint said.
Community Church of Chesterland acknowledged Penny’s arrest in a Facebook statement: “Thank you to the investigative bodies responsible for moving so quickly to make this arrest.
"While we are sorry this happened and forgive the individual in question, we would like to see him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as a way to send a message to other like minded people and groups that violence as a form of coercion to advance any kind of agenda is unacceptable in 2023," it said.
The search of Penny’s home turned up a “hand-written manifesto that contained ideological statements, a Nazi flag, Nazi memorabilia, a White Lives Matter of Ohio t-shirt, a gas mask, multiple rolls of blue painters tape and gas cans,” according to the complaint.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio said in the Justice Department statement: “Violence and destruction are never an acceptable way to express a disagreement with a particular viewpoint.” She added, “While, as Americans, we enjoy the right to disagree, doing so peacefully is the only appropriate option.”