Colorado Man Pleads Guilty for Setting Fire to Church in Hate Crime Case

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
May 6, 2023US News
Colorado Man Pleads Guilty for Setting Fire to Church in Hate Crime Case
Darion Ray Sexton. (Larimer County Sheriff's Office)

A 22-year-old man has pled guilty in a Colorado federal court for setting fire to a church in Loveland in January.

Darion Ray Sexton entered a guilty plea on Thursday, admitting fault for setting fire to the Abiding Love Lutheran Church on Jan. 19.

Sexton was arrested and charged on Jan. 23 with causing damage to real property with fire or explosives.

As part of his plea, Sexton admitted to throwing two “Molotov cocktail” incendiary devices at the church, including one at the front door and the other at the basement.

Sexton further admitted that he intended to destroy the church and was motivated to set fire to the building because of its religious character, making the offense a hate crime.

According to charging documents in the case, Sexton messaged a friend on the Snapchat social media app, saying “yeah, I might go set a church on fire.” This friend, referred to in court documents as Witness 1, replied: “Isn’t that a hate crime?” before falling asleep.

Sexton will again appear in federal court on July 21 for a sentencing hearing. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Plea Agreement

The plea agreement (pdf) Sexton signed recommends a prison term of between 51 months (just over four years) and 125 months (almost 10 and a half years) and a restitution period of no more than three years. The agreement also recommends a fine of between $20,000 and $200,000 and restitution for damages.

A judge may determine a sentence that is either greater or less than those recommended in the plea agreement.

“We all have a right to feel safe and secure in our houses of worship—no matter our religion or belief,” U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan for the District of Colorado said following Sexton’s guilty plea on Thursday. “An act of violence in one of our sacred places is especially serious, and we will work with our law enforcement partners to vigorously prosecute all such offenses.”

NTD News reached out to the Abiding Love Lutheran Church for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

Churches Under Attack

Numerous churches across the United States have been targeted with vandalism and arson in recent months.

The uptick in attacks targeting churches comes after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which the court ruled that individual states could regulate aspects of abortion not already covered by federal law.

Several Christian faiths, including the Lutheran Church, oppose abortion. In some instances, churches and other pro-life organizations have been targeted with graffiti messages referencing their pro-life views.

Charging documents in Sexton’s case do not elaborate further on his motives for targeting the Abiding Love Lutheran Church beyond an unspecified animus toward its “religious character.”

During a March Senate hearing, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is investigating and prosecuting cases of suspects targeting both sides of the abortion debate but admitted there had been fewer prosecutions for attacks on pro-life churches and offices because suspects in those cases tend to act at night when there are fewer witnesses or cameras present.

Following Sexton’s guilty plea, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “We will continue to vigorously prosecute those who attack houses of worship and target religious communities.”

“The FBI treats hate crimes as the highest priority of our civil rights program because everyone deserves to feel safe to exercise their religion without fear of violence from others,” said Mark Michalek, the Special Agent of the FBI Denver Field Office.

“FBI Denver is committed to protecting those rights, and we will continue to aggressively work with our law enforcement partners to bring justice to all communities that have been targeted.”

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