Man faces hate crime charge in Florida church arson attack

Associated Press [New York NY]

March 18, 2021

A man accused of setting a Florida church on fire last year is facing a federal hate crime charge, prosecutors announced Thursday.

A federal grand jury in Orlando returned an indictment Wednesday against Steven Shields, 24, of Dunnellon, according to court records. He’s charged with using fire to commit a felony and intentionally damaging religious property, a hate crime charge that falls under the Church Arson Prevention Act.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the hate crime and a mandatory minimum of 10 years if convicted of the fire charge. He also faces state arson and burglary charges.

According to the indictment, Shields intentionally set fire last July to the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, about 80 miles (about 130 kilometers) north of Orlando.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said last year that Shields plowed a minivan through the church’s front door, doused the foyer with gasoline and set it on fire, causing extensive damage. Several people were inside preparing for Mass when the attack occurred, but no one was hurt, officials said.

According to court documents, Shields told detectives he was mentally ill but had stopped taking his medication. Shields told detectives that he has problems with the Catholic Church and referenced passages in the Bible’s Book of Revelations.

Federal court records didn’t list an attorney for Shields. An attorney listed in his state case didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.