WASHINGTON – Steven Scott Cantrell, of Crane, Texas, pleaded guilty today to hate crime charges stemming from a series of racially-motivated arsons in December 2010, including the arson of a historic African-American church as part of an effort to murder a disabled African-American man, the Justice Department announced today.
Cantrell, 25, pleaded guilty to damaging religious property and interfering with housing rights in violation of federal hate crime laws before U.S. District Judge Robert A. Junell in federal court in Midland, Texas.
During the plea hearing, Cantrell admitted that on Dec. 28, 2010, he set fire to Faith in Christ Church, a predominantly African-American church, as part of an effort to murder a disabled African-American man who he saw passing by the church in his wheelchair. Before starting the fire, Cantrell admitted that he intentionally attempted to kill the disabled African-American man whom he believed lived at a shelter within the church, and was present when he set the fire. The man was not hurt. Cantrell ransacked the church, wrote a series of threatening and racist messages in large letters across the wall of the church next to the pastor’s office, and “tagged” the church with references to the Aryan Brotherhood.
The arson of Faith in Christ Church was part of a series of racially-motivated arsons that Cantrell perpetrated that day in his attempt to gain status with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. In addition to the church, Cantrell admitted that he set fire to the house of another man in the community because he believed that man to be Jewish and because he sought to injure, intimidate or interfere with that man’s right to rent or occupy that house. Cantrell also admitted to setting fire to Craig’s Gym in violation of federal arson laws. At the plea hearing, Cantrell acknowledged that he set fire to Craig’s Gym because he believed the owners served Mexican-Americans and African-American patrons and because the gym was owned by a Caucasian man married to a woman of Mexican descent. Cantrell added that he felt “disrespected” by a Caucasian man marrying a woman of Mexican descent because he believed “the white race needed to be kept pure.”
“Every person, regardless of race or national origin, should have the opportunity to practice their religion of choice without fear of threat or harm,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. “The department will continue to vigorously prosecute those that commit heinous acts like this one.”
“The defendant’s cowardly acts of setting fire to a house of worship, an apartment and a gym were motivated by racial, ethnic and religious bigotry,” said John E. Murphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. “His conduct and motivation are deplorable and repugnant to the basic principles of our society.”
“The FBI is committed to vigorously investigating all hate crimes,” said W. Jay Abbott, FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge. “The resolution of this investigation is a demonstration of the FBI’s resolve to investigate such crimes and to be responsive to the citizens we serve in dealing with these intolerable acts. The FBI is also grateful for the professionalism and rapport which exists with local, state and other federal entities which worked in close coordination with the FBI to bring this investigation to its conclusion.”
Cantrell’s sentencing has been set for Nov. 30, 2011, at 8:30 a.m. Cantrell faces a maximum penalty of life in prison for burning the church with intent to commit murder and his other crimes.
This case was jointly investigated by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Crane Police Department and the Texas Department of Insurance. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Victor Boutros from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Klassen for the Western District of Texas, with the cooperation of the District Attorney for the 109th Judicial District of the State of Texas.