A member of a black church in Mississippi has pleaded guilty to burning the church, which was also spray painted with the slogan “Vote Trump,” a week before the 2016 presidential election.
Andrew McClinton, 47, pleaded guilty to arson Thursday, the Delta Democrat-Times reported. His sentencing is set for late April.
Investigators said McClinton, who is African-American, belonged to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, which was vandalized and burned.
Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the state fire marshal, told The Associated Press that investigators believe the graffiti was intended as a distraction from some other sort of wrongdoing. Chaney would not specify what that was.
“He tried to make the arson appear it was politically motivated, but it was not,” Chaney said.
Greenville, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northwest of Jackson, is a Mississippi River port city that’s a hub of commerce in the cotton-growing Delta. About 78 percent of the city’s 32,100 residents are African-American.
McClinton will be sentenced as a habitual offender because he was convicted of attempted armed robbery in 1997 and armed robbery in 2004, both in another part of Mississippi.
Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1905 in the heart of an African-American neighborhood, and the congregation has about 200 members. Some walls of the beige brick church survived the fire, but the remaining walls were torn down. A new structure was built in its place.
During the first months after the fire, Hopewell members have worshipped in the chapel at First Baptist Church of Greenville, which has a predominantly white congregation.
Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons initially urged officials to investigate the church burning as a possible hate crime. Simmons is African-American and had been elected months earlier on a platform of seeking racial unity.
The mayor’s twin, Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons, told AP in December 2016 that his brother had taken the right approach.
“There is a dark past in America and in the Deep South regarding the burning of African-American churches,” Derrick Simmons said. “The way law enforcement authorities initially investigated this matter as a hate crime I believe was warranted, considering the past and the history.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Emily Wagster Pettus