Law enforcement has arrested a Mississippi man for committing arson against a church he had attended and defacing it with propaganda for President-elect Donald Trump. After the century-old African-American church burned in November, authorities had initially speculated that the arson was a politically-motivated hate crime, but that no longer seems to be the case.
On Dec. 22, police arrested 45-year-old Andrew McClinton of Leland, Mississippi, for the arson and vandalization of the historic Hopewell Baptist Church. McClinton has been accused of setting the church on fire and spray-painting "Vote Trump" on the premises on Nov. 1.
Occurring a week before the presidential election, the arson was suspected of being a politically-motivated hate crime. Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, a fire marshall, now believes that the Trump graffiti might have been a red herring.
"We do not believe it was politically motivated," Chaney told The Associated Press. "There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated."
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Shortly after the fire, Mayor Errick Simmons of Greenville publicly deemed the arson a hate crime, vowing: "We will not rest until the culprit, be they male, female, black, white, Republican, or Democrat; is found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Following McClinton's arrest, Mayor Simmons released a statement doubling down on his original sentiment.
"There is no place for this heinous and divisive behavior in our city," Simmons said. "We will not rest until the culprit is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We take pride in our work to have a unified city and we look forward to continuing that work. We are excited to move forward in the healing process."
City of Greenville spokesperson Kenya Collins has stated that McClinton has not been charged with a hate crime because authorities have yet to determine his motive.
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"The charges that he received today, it was not a hate crime but we do not know if the federal government will pursue this as such because we do not have a motive yet," Collins told The Clarion-Ledger.
She added that the heavily damaged Hopewell Baptist Church has been demolished.
McClinton, an African-American man, was a member of the church. He has a checkered criminal history dating back to 1991, including arrests for grand larceny, attempted robbery, and armed robbery. He had been out of prison since January 2012. He has now been charged with first-degree arson of a place of worship.
It is not clear why McClinton spray painted Trump's name on the face of the church, but given the politically tense climate of when the arson occurred, the graffiti had placed suspicion on locally-based Trump supporters. There have been several high-profile hoaxes regarding hate crimes committed by Trump supporters in the past month.
Last week, a Muslim woman in New York was arrested for fabricating an incident of being violently harassed by Trump supporters. Attorney and journalist Wajahat Ali has taken to social media to blast individuals who have perpetrated hoaxes, asserting that they undercut the credibility of the victims of real hate crimes, The Washington Post reports.
"If you are having personal problems, want attention or need to raise awareness, crying wolf helps no one," Ali said. "In fact, it makes it worse."