CLEVELAND – An Ohio man has been indicted on a federal hate crimes charge in what authorities say was a racially motivated arson at a church with a mostly black congregation.
The two-count indictment against Ronald Pudder, 23, of Conneaut in northeast Ohio, was detailed at a news conference Friday with the nation’s top civil rights attorney, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
He said the government was determined to deter a rash of copycat crimes.
“Hate crimes reflect a cancer of the soul,” Perez said.
“They are designed not only to injure the particular victim or victims, but to send a message to the community: a message of fear, an effort to divide communities along racial or religious lines.”
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said Pudder was charged with felony counts of damaging a church based on bias and arson.
Pudder is accused in a midweek fire that damaged the entrance to the First Azusa Apostolic Faith Church of God in Conneaut before dawn on May 20. No one was hurt.
The government said it’s the only black church in Conneaut, a community of about 12,000 with a 1 percent black population and located between Cleveland and Erie, Pa.
No attorney is listed for Pudder in court records. He was arrested at the fire scene by police who said they noticed a suspicious car driving by slowly.
The head of FBI in Cleveland, Frank Figliuzzi, alluded to the uproar over a proposed mosque near ground zero in New York and a threat by a Florida pastor to burn the Quran in highlighting the agency’s fight against hate crimes.
“At a time when the nation is debating the location of a place of worship and people are talking about burning sacred books, we must all understand that when rhetoric turns to hate and hate turns to violence we are all harmed,” Figliuzzi said.
Church leaders could not be reached for comment. Calls to the church went unanswered.