By Asia Simone Burns, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A prominent bishop said it was divine intervention that no events were scheduled at a Hall County church last Wednesday night.
That’s after police announced they arrested a 16-year-old girl who allegedly planned to visit the predominantly Black church that night and kill those inside.
The teen, who is white, planned to attack the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Gainesville police.
“Our investigation indicated the church was targeted by the juvenile based on the racial demographic of the church members,” police Chief Jay Parrish said Tuesday in a news release. “The church was immediately notified of the incident by Gainesville police to ensure the safety of our community and the current threat was under control.”
It’s not clear how the girl planned to carry out the alleged attack, but Parrish said the teen collected knives.
Gainesville High School administrators learned of the alleged plot from students who told them the girl had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at the church, Parrish said.
Administrators notified school resource officers Friday and opened an investigation. They verified the threat and turned the investigation over to Gainesville police, who took the girl into custody, Parrish said.
She was charged with criminal attempt to commit murder and taken to the Gainesville Regional Youth Detention Center.
Investigators aren’t sure how long the teen had allegedly been planning the attack, but “disturbing information” and drawings police found indicate the plot had been in the works for at least two weeks, according to Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook.
Her name has not been released.
Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool said the teen visited her church last Wednesday, but no events were scheduled that night. Bible study is usually held on Wednesday nights.
“While we are very concerned about this incident, we are not surprised,” Bishop Reginald T. Jackson said in a statement Tuesday. Jackson is presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the Hall County AME church.
“Hate crimes and domestic terrorism have been on the rise for many years, but it is unfortunate we cannot have this perpetrator prosecuted on hate crimes in Georgia because there is no law on the books to address it.”
Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law, which allows for steeper penalties against certain bias-related crimes. The others are Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Susan Fahey, associate professor of criminal justice at Stockton University in New Jersey, has studied hate crimes data. Speaking at a recent American Society of Criminology conference, Fahey said there is evidence that hate crimes are rising nationally. She said that increase began before President Donald Trump was elected.
“You can’t blame it on the current administration,” Jackson said, “but I think it is absolutely critical that this administration address the issue of domestic terrorism.”
It’s unclear if the teen was alone in the plot. Jackson said a guard reported last week that a young man visited the church inquiring about bible study.
Police have not said if anyone else is believed to be involved, and no one else has been arrested.
Jackson wants the girl tried as an adult. “To plan this kind of event is not that of a childish mind,” he said.
Jackson said it’s troubling that an AME church was targeted for such an attack because of the history of the church and “the role it has played in social justice issues.”
Gainesville police’s investigation continues.
“This is … a prime example of how strong relationships between the student body, school administration and law enforcement can intercept a potentially horrific incident,” Parrish said.
This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.