By Nick Watson, The Times
The Gainesville teenager who was accused of plotting a foiled attack on a predominantly Black Gainesville church was sentenced Thursday, Oct. 22, to a combination of probation, counseling and four years at a Department of Juvenile Justice facility.
Caitlyn Pye was charged Nov. 15 with criminal attempt to commit murder after planning an attack on Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Mill Street. Pye also went to the church on two occasions armed with knives but no one was there.
Pye was originally taken into custody and transported to a Regional Youth Detention Center. Juvenile Court Judge Alison Toller, who handled the cases both in Juvenile and Superior Court, sentenced her to stay in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s custody until she is 21, followed by 10 years of probation.
She must also have no contact with any AME church in Georgia and must stay 150 yards away from any AME church.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said he thought the sentence was appropriate and hoped it “will have a significant impact on Ms. Pye and her future that she might change the attitudes that she had and attitudes she may have later.”
“I think the sentence reflected that hate, racism and White supremacy simply (have) no place in Gainesville, Georgia,” Darragh said.
During her court appearance on Thursday, Pye sobbed as she read a prepared statement addressing the church, saying she was “truly sorry for what I’ve done.”
Pye’s mother said she was “such a great child” who was shy and didn’t have a lot of friends. She said she noticed her daughter starting to hate going to school.
“She’s not a monster,” Pye’s mother said. “She’s never been taught hate.”
Outside of the courtroom, Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of AME churches, said the case could serve as a lesson about how “words and attitudes do matter.”
“Her attitude was shaped somewhere by somebody,” Jackson said. “The mother said she didn’t get it from home, and I generally was moved by her mother. But she got it from somewhere.”
Before Pye’s mother took the stand, a counselor at the Regional Youth Detention Center testified about Pye’s growth while in custody. The counselor said she was originally quiet and reserved before she “began to blossom.”
“We’re glad we could close it this way,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Nicki Vaughan, who sat with Pye along with attorney Gene Parris at the defense table. “She has certainly grown a lot being at the (regional youth detention center). … This was a fair resolution.”
Gainesville school resource officers learned in November of 2019 that the then 16-year-old girl had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at Bethel AME, police said last year.
School officials searched Pye’s bookbag and found a purple-and-white notebook and two T-shirts, according to Assistant District Attorney Julia Greene. One T-shirt had “natural selection” written on the front, the other had “Free Dylann Storm Roof” and swastikas drawn on each arm, Greene said.
Roof shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
“On the back of the shirt were several writings including, ‘I’m not crazy I had to do this,’” Greene said. “’I had to do it because somebody had to do something, because Black people are killing White people every day on the streets. What I did is still miniscule compared to what they’re doing to White people every day. I do consider myself a White supremacist.’”
The back of the shirt also had Roof’s name and references to White supremacy.
Greene said that Pye’s principal stepped out of a meeting with Pye and the school resource officer to make a phone call, and Pye asked the officer what would happen.
“(The school resource officer) advised that he anticipated the school would take administrative action, but since on the surface it appeared to be free speech, he didn’t foresee any law enforcement action,” Greene said. “At that time, Caitlyn stated, ‘It’s not freedom of speech because I intended to do it.’ Having heard this, the officer immediately told her to not make any further statements until she was read Miranda rights.”
After the Miranda rights, officers learned Pye went to the church Nov. 6 and Nov. 13 with two knives in her bookbag but was unable to find church members.
Darragh said there was much to be learned from the AME membership.
“Through the eloquence of the pastor and the bishop, we all can take a good lesson about the impact that such things have on the Black community,” Darragh said.
Jackson was the first witness called to give an impact statement about the “shocking, frightening and alarming” incident.
The plot’s effect could be felt around the world, as Jackson heard from other AME congregants and leaders as well as other faith leaders after the news broke.
“Our churches, rather than being places of worship, study and fellowship, have now become armed sanctuaries, where we have to have security in order to feel safe,” Jackson said.
Jackson said national leadership “cannot remain in denial about the reality and danger of White supremacists and racism.”
“While we are angered and frustrated by this incident, we do not hold hostility against this defendant,” he said. “While she apparently hates or hated us, we do not hate her and do not wish to nullify her future and do not give up on her.”
Jackson said the church hopes the sentence will provide Pye the opportunity to reflect and be rehabilitated, emerging from her sentence as a woman free of hate.
Bethel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool, said the plot caused “irreversible harm” to her congregation, the community and to herself.
Church attendance started to drop off after news of the plot, and members of the congregation became apprehensive, Rizer-Pool said.
“There are not enough sermons that I can preach, and the choir cannot sing enough about faith, hope and love to erase these images and fears,” Rizer-Pool said.
Church trustee Shana Ramsey said she no longer sits with her back to the door and instead chooses a spot where she can see the entrance and exit.
Ramsey said people are pleased with the outcome of the case and that people are praying “that she gets the help that she needs and that she has really changed her life around.”
“It’s time for some healing, and we’ll get back to normal as normal can be at this time,” Ramsey said. “Everything is a new normal right now.”
Church member Sonya Wilkins, who has been attending since she was a child, said she felt justice was served.
“She’s got a lot of time to think about what she did and make a change for herself,” Wilkins said.
The church has spent more than $8,500 on changing locks, upgrading surveillance, hiring off-duty police and other security measures. The money was originally earmarked to revamp the church’s parking lot and fix the bathrooms and plumbing.
Wilkins said the added cameras have been a good precautionary measure for monitoring who comes and goes.
Rizer-Pool, Bethel AME members and other churches also attended an active shooter training in February hosted by Gainesville Police.
“I took a lot from that because it made me aware, not just for my church (but) just made me aware wherever I go. And I then had to instill that to (the congregation),” Rizer-Pool said. “Be aware of your surroundings wherever you go.”
This article originally appeared in the Gainesville Times.