A white 16-year-old girl is accused of plotting to attack a mostly black church in a north Georgia city, where police say she planned to kill worshippers because of their race.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has a predominantly black congregation, Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said in a statement Tuesday.
“Our investigation indicated the church was targeted by the juvenile based on the racial demographic of the church members,” he said.
Students, school administrators and law officers worked together to thwart a “potentially horrific incident,” he added. Though the police department did not release her name.
The plot to kill members of the church came to light when Gainesville High School students told administrators the 16-year-old had a notebook with detailed plans to kill worshippers at the church, Parrish said.
“It just grieves my spirit on a number of different levels, one that the intentions of this young person were so calculated to do great harm against people who just simply had no knowledge of such a plot,” said the Rev. Rose Johnson Mackey, director of the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights organization founded in Gainesville 70 years ago.
The girl is charged with criminal attempt to commit murder, the police chief said. She’s being held in a youth detention center in Gainesville.
Details of the alleged plot haven’t been released, but Parrish said it came to light Friday when school administrators contacted police.
“We’re just very pleased that our police department acted so swiftly, and the police department in conjunction with our school administrators were just on top of the situation,” Mackey said.
Gainesville is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta. It’s a city of just over 40,000 people, about 17% of whom are African-American.
Rev. Dr. Michelle Rizer-Pool, who leads the congregation at Bethel AME, said she was shocked when notified by police about the alleged attempt.
“When I found out I drove to the church, went inside it and prayed and anointed my church and asked God to put a hedge of protection around us,” she said in a telephone interview. “That was on Friday. On Sunday, I tried to relay what was going on without a lot of emotion so that the congregants would remain calm.
“You know, I’ve been preaching for a while now about being on the battlefield, being a soldier in God’s army and that if you believe that God is in charge, he won’t allow hurt or harm to come your way. One of my members told me, ‘You’ve been getting us ready.’ I guess I have.”
Rizer-Pool has pastored the church and its approximately 40 members since June 2018. She said the congregation recently celebrated 118 years of service in the community.
“I had asked for active shooting training for the church prior to this but it never happened. Still, I had done a few things to keep us as safe as possible like upgrading the security system, locking the back door and reminding our ushers, that is our first line of defense, just to be aware of people we don’t know,” she said.
The South has a long history of black churches being bombed, burned and shot up.
White supremacist Dylann Roof fatally shot nine black church members during their Bible study lesson at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Roof later told FBI agents he had hoped the killings would start a race war.
More recently, the white son of a sheriff’s deputy was arrested in April and accused of setting fires that destroyed three black churches in rural Louisiana. Holden Matthews is awaiting trial on arson and hate crimes charges in the Louisiana church burning.