A 16-year-old white high school student is in custody after her plan to attack an historically black church in Gainesville, Georgia, with knives was foiled, police said Tuesday.
The Gainesville High School student had been planning the attack at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for several weeks, police said.
She took significant steps, including researching black churches online and visiting Bethel AME once this month, police Chief Jay Parrish said. No one was at the church at the time, he said.
A student overheard the teenager talking about the alleged threat on Friday and alerted a school administrator, who in turn notified a school resource officer, Parrish said.
The teenager was taken into custody. She faces a charge of criminal attempt to commit murder, police said. “I have no doubt that we thwarted an attack that would’ve been ugly,” Parrish said.
Sgt. Kevin Holbrook with Gainesville police said he is not aware of the teen having an attorney.
The teenager targeted Bethel AME because of its African American congregants and small congregation, the police chief said.
“I do know that she did a lot of internet research on what she wanted to do,” Parrish said. “I think she wanted notoriety and in that she looked up African American churches.”
He said that even though there are several black churches in Gainesville, “somehow it landed her on this one and that became the target.”
Parrish said the teenager had written down how she planned to carry out the alleged plot and collected knives.
“She is a racist,” the chief said, adding he wouldn’t make the statement without “substantial evidence.”
He said the details he read about the alleged plot were “very sickening.”
The chief said it was “divine intervention” that no one was at the church when the teenager visited. He believes she had the knives with her.
Police believe the girl acted alone. No other churches are at risk, Parrish said.
Parrish said he called Bethel AME’s pastor Friday afternoon after learning of the alleged plot.
Shana Ramsey, a Bethel AME trustee, said she “could hear the hurt in her voice” when the pastor told her about the alleged plot Friday night.
‘It’s sad that there is still hatred in the world’
“It’s sad that there is still hatred in the world,” Ramsey, 49, said shaking her head as she stood in the sanctuary.
“Because some are brought up to love everybody and that’s what we would want the world to do, is to love everybody and to get along,” said Ramsey.
Members said they have spoken to the police chief about adding extra security.
Started more than a century ago, the predominantly black church has more than 40 members, congregants said.
Church members said Wednesday’s Bible study was likely canceled, but they still planned to worship on Sunday.
“We hold steady to our faith. And we will be here on Sunday morning to worship with our fellow members and to get our praise on with the Lord,” Ramsey said.
‘This is not a representation of us’
School Superintendent Jeremy Williams said: “A single act by a student does not represent the views and beliefs of Gainesville City School System.”
“As a school system that celebrates our diversity, we are beyond stunned with the recent development. However, we are extremely proud of our students notifying school administration of a possible off-campus threat,” he said.
The teenager’s plans were very detailed, the chief said.
“I’m highly alarmed that someone would feel that way and that would take these significant steps to attack an innocent person, a godly person, at a church, one of the most sacred things our society has left,” Parrish said.
Parrish, a Gainesville native, said the alleged plot is “the opposite of who we are.”
“I’ve been in this community my whole life and this is not a representation of us,” he said.
Nick Valencia and Pam Kirkland reported from Gainesville and Darran Simon reported and wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Amanda Watts and Chris Boyette contributed to this report.