A 16-year-old girl is in custody after authorities say she plotted to attack members of a predominately Black church in Gainesville, Georgia.
The teen, who’s white, allegedly had a notebook detailing her plans to kill parishioners at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Gainesville Police.
“Our investigation indicated the church was targeted by the juvenile based on the racial demographics of the church members,” police Chief Jay Parrish said in a press release Tuesday. “The church was immediately notified of the incident by Gainesville police to the ensure safety of our community and the current threat was under control.”
According to police, the unnamed suspect visited the church last Wednesday, but no events were planned for that evening.
“By the grace of God and by divine intervention, at the time she went to the church there was no one there and they weren’t having church at the time,” Parrish added.
The teen, who police say may have been radicalized, took significant steps toward carrying out the deadly attack, going so far as to collect knives and scope out the house of worship. It is unclear if others were involved in the plot, but Bishop Reginald Jackson, the presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District for the AME Church, said a guard reported a young man coming by last week and inquiring about Bible study, which is held on Wednesdays.
Authorities are also unsure how long the girl had allegedly been planning the attack. However, Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said police uncovered “disturbing information” and drawings that indicate the plot had been in the works for at least two weeks.
Police were alerted to the attack after the teen first mentioned the plot to classmates at Gainesville High School, according to Atlanta station WSB-TV. The students told school administrators, who then notified school resource officers of the suspect’s “detailed plans to commit murder.”
School officers launched an investigation and, after verifying a threat, turned the case over to Gainesville police.
Members of Bethel AME said they’re more than grateful authorities were able to thwart the potentially deadly attack.
“We are thankful to God that this plot was stopped before anybody was either killed or injured,’” said Jackson, adding the suspect was seemingly inspired by Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, who killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Shana Ramsey, a trustee at the Atlanta-area church, told WSB-TV: “It’s scary what could’ve had probably happened. She went to great lengths to plan it, to get weapons and launch her attack on the church.”
The teen has since been charged with criminal attempt to commit murder and is in custody at the Gainesville Regional Youth Detention Center.
Bishop Jackson decried the plot, but said he isn’t all that “surprised” considering the racial and political climate. He pointed to the recent rise of hate crimes and bias-related incidents across the U.S. and questioned if AME churches are being targeted in particular for their role in supporting social justice issues.
“Hate crimes and domestic terrorism have been on the rise for many years,” Jackson added. “But it’s unfortunate we can’t have this perpetrator prosecuted on hate crimes in Georgia because there is no law on the books to address it.’
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia is one of four states that doesn’t have a hate crimes law, which would bring harsher penalties for certain bias-related crimes. The newspaper names South Carolina as one of those four states, but the South Carolina resident Roof was prosecuted on federal hate crimes charges in the Mother Emanuel massacre.
Jackson and other AME church leaders are now pushing for the teen suspect to be charged as an adult.
Gainesville police said the incident remains under investigation.
“This is a prime example of how strong relationships between the student body, school administration, and law enforcement can intercept a potentially horrific incident,” said Parrish.