A man has been charged with a federal hate crime and arson for allegedly burning down the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri last year.
Christopher Scott Pritchard, 46, was charged for intentionally obstructing the parishioners of the church in the enjoyment of their free exercise of religious beliefs and using fire to commit a federal felony, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in a statement on Thursday, citing court documents.
If convicted, Pritchard faces up to 20 years in prison—with a mandatory minimum of 10 years consecutive to any other sentence—for using fire to commit a federal felony.
Pritchard also faces a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge.
The fire broke out on April 18, 2021, and quickly engulfed the church. No one was inside the building and no one was injured. The church is considered a total loss.
Mark Welker, a prosecuting attorney in Cape Girardeau County, said at the time Pritchard deserved a hate crime due to being “knowingly motivated” for his actions by “reason of a motive related to the religion of the people who worship” at the church, KFVS reported.
Pritchard’s sister disagreed with the fire being called a hate crime, explaining her brother had been homeless for two years and also suffers from a mental illness.
Several days before the incident, the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Office said it had received a request for an extra patrol near the house of worship after church officials received threats from Pritchard, who allegedly threatened to assault a church bishop “with a brick” and then “burn the church down.”
Police said at the time the suspect admitted during an interview to making such threats toward the bishop, but he denied intentions of setting it ablaze.
The church was engulfed in flames at approximately 9:30 p.m. on April 18 and a couple living nearby reported a suspicious individual with a backpack watching the burning church. The suspicious individual was later identified as Pritchard. He was taken into custody at the Cape Girardeau County Jail on a no-bond warrant.
In addition, police also found items valued at $1,049 in Pritchard’s backpack that belonged to the church, including a laptop and hand tools.