Oregon Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime for Threatening Shooting Spree at Eugene Church
The Justice Department today announced that defendant Benjamin Jaramillo Hernandez, 69, pleaded guilty today to a federal hate crime and illegal possession of ammunition charge arising from a series of progressively more threatening and violent actions targeting St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene in September 2018. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy J. Williams made the announcement.
“The Civil Rights Division stands firm in the belief that all people should be able to live their lives free from threats of violence,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband. “The Department of Justice will continue to uphold the rights of individuals who are victimized for exercising their religious beliefs and prosecute those who seek to violate those rights.”
“Hate crime laws protect fundamental American values including the free expression of religion. Today’s guilty plea reaffirms the basic principle that no one should live in fear because of their faith,” said U.S. Attorney Williams. “Our office will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute hate crimes, pursuing justice for all victims.”
“Threatening violent action strikes at the heart of our fundamental right as Americans to live, work and worship without fear. Working with the community and our local law enforcement partners, we will always find strength in our shared values of keeping everyone safe regardless of race, religion or political belief,” said Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon.
According to court documents, on Sept. 9, 2018, Hernandez was escorted from St. Mary property following an angry outburst during the sacrament of communion. Five days later, on September 14, a church employee reported to the Eugene Police Department that someone had dispensed pepper spray on the exterior door handles and through the mail slot of the St. Mary office front door. Employees reported burning sensations in their fingers and respiratory distress. A Eugene police officer and FBI agent identified Hernandez in church surveillance footage as the person responsible for both incidents.
On Sept. 16, 2018, Hernandez was again spotted near St. Mary. A witness saw Hernandez across the street from the church when he stopped near the Eugene Public Library and shouted at the witness, “I’ve got something for you right here,” while pointing to a bag he was carrying.
A few days later, on September 20, St. Mary employees reported finding a threatening note and seven 10mm Sig hollow point bullets left in the office. The note threatened the church with “2 MP5s w/ 50 rounds each,” a type of submachine gun. The note concluded: “Eugene is going on the [expletive] map.”
A Eugene police officer again reviewed church surveillance footage and identified Hernandez as the individual who dropped off the note and bullets. On Sept. 21, 2018, Hernandez was arrested by Eugene Police at the Eugene Public Library and charged with second degree intimidation, second degree criminal mischief and two counts of second degree criminal trespass. During a search of Hernandez’s person, officers located a partially empty can of pepper spray, three .410 shotgun shells and thirteen 10mm Sig hollow point bullets.
Hernandez was charged by criminal information with one count each of obstruction of persons in the free exercise of religious beliefs and felon in possession of ammunition.
Hernandez faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a criminal fine of up to $250,000 for the hate crime, and he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for the unlawful possession of ammunition. Hernandez will be sentenced on May 22, 2019 before U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gavin Bruce of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Oregon, and Trial Attorney Cameron Bell with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The case was investigated by the Eugene Division of the FBI and the Eugene Police Department.
For more information about DOJ’s work to combat and prevent hate crimes, visit www.justice.gov/hatecrimes: a one-stop portal with links to DOJ hate crimes resources for law enforcement, media, researchers, victims, advocacy groups, and other organizations and individuals.