Justice Department Files Statement of Interest in Religious Land Use Case Involving Orthodox Jewish Congregation
The Justice Department announced that a Missouri man pleaded guilty to hate crime and arson violations for burning down the Cape Girardeau Islamic Center (the Center) in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
According to court documents, on April 24, 2020, which was the first morning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, at approximately 4:50 a.m., Nicholas John Proffitt, 44, set fire to the Islamic Center at 298 Northwest End Boulevard, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The Center’s video security system showed Proffitt throwing multiple objects through the building’s glass window, causing it to break. Proffitt threw two containers into the Center through the broken window and stepped through the window to enter the Center. He then poured the contents of two gallon-sized containers throughout the foyer and down the hallway. Proffitt lit two fires that immediately spread through the inside of the building. The Islamic Center building suffered severe damage that rendered it unsuitable for use as a religious center. Proffitt admitted that he set the fire to the Islamic Center because of the religious character of the building.
“Attacks on houses of worship, like the Cape Girardeau Islamic Center, strike at the very heart of religious freedom and observance,” said Assistant Attorney Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’ Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute individuals who violently target religious institutions and communities.”
“This is the second time Nicholas Proffitt attacked the Islamic Center in Cape Girardeau, and his third attack against a house of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Sayler A. Fleming for the Eastern District of Missouri. “He placed the occupants of that building at risk of death or serious injury, and he will be held responsible for his actions with a significant prison sentence.”
“The FBI just released the 2021 statistics on reported hate crime incidents nationwide. In Missouri, incidents reported to law enforcement jumped by almost 70%,” said Special Agent in Charge Jay Greenberg of the FBI St. Louis Field Office. “The FBI elevated investigating hate crimes as one of the top priorities for the Bureau because of the alarming increases in recent years. As such, the FBI and our law enforcement partners left no stone unturned to bring Nicholas Proffitt and other perpetrators to justice.”
“The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has a long tradition of fire and arson investigation. In no case is that expertise more critical than a fire such as this,” said Special Agent in Charge Fred Winston of the ATF Kansas City Field Division. “When a house of worship is intentionally damaged by fire, it is not only that congregation that suffers, but the entire community. Religious centers, churches and mosques are often at the center of our neighborhoods, offering sanctuaries of peace and caring to those in need. Today’s guilty plea is a direct result of local, state and federal law enforcement working together to ensure justice in this unthinkable act.”
Sentencing is scheduled for May 2, 2023. Proffitt faces up to 20 years in prison for damage to religious property and a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, consecutive to any other sentence, for using fire to commit a federal felony. Proffitt also faces a fine of up to $250,000 with respect to each charge.
The Cape Girardeau Police Department, the FBI St. Louis Field Office, the ATF, the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Perryville Police Department investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Hahn for the Eastern District of Missouri and Trial Attorney Noah Coakley II of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section prosecuted the case.
For more information and resources on the department’s efforts to combat hate crimes, visit www.justice.gov/hatecrimes.