Georgia - Police in northern Georgia said Tuesday they arrested a white teenager who was plotting to kill parishioners at a mostly black church, thwarting an alleged racist attack that highlighted a growing threat of hate-fuelled violence against houses of worship.
The 16-year-old girl was charged with attempt to commit murder after students at her high school told administrators she had a notebook filled with "detailed plans" to kill members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia, according to police.
The alleged plot was "definitely racially motivated," said Sgt. Kevin Holbrook of the Gainesville Police Department. The notebook, he said, contained "manifesto-type" language that discussed how she wanted to assault black parishioners with butcher knives and other sharp-edged weapons.
"There were many writings and drawings, different depictions, and a lot of hateful messages in it," Holbrook told The Washington Post. "As far as the details go, they were down to very specific information."
Police said the girl researched African-American churches online, choosing Bethel AME Church because it is small. Investigators believe she went to the church at some point earlier this month, possibly to carry out the attack, but found the building empty, according to police.
"By pure grace, the church did not have service that evening," Holbrook said. "We were very fortunate here."
The teenager is being held in the Regional Youth Detention Center in Gainesville. Police did not release her name Tuesday.
The girl's arrest comes as black churches and other houses of worship around the country have faced a wave of violence and intimidation carried out by alleged white supremacists and other extremists.
Earlier this year, three historically black churches in St. Landy Parish, Louisiana, were torched in the span of 10 days in what authorities have said were racially motivated attacks. The suspect, a local sheriff's deputy's son, has pleaded not guilty to arson and hate crime charges.
Extremist attackers have also targeted Jewish institutions in increasing numbers, according to anti-hate groups. Last October, a gunman allegedly left a trail of anti-Semitic posts on social media before fatally shooting 11 congregants at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. And just last month, authorities arrested a self-proclaimed white supremacist who allegedly planned to blow up a historic Colorado synagogue as part of a "racial holy war."
Georgia is one of four U.S. states that do not have official hate crime laws on their books, making it unclear how the alleged racist nature of the plot against the Gainesville church will factor in the case against the teenager.
"While we are very concerned about this incident, we are not surprised," Bishop Reginald Jackson, head of the Sixth Episcopal District of the AME Church, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday.
"Hate crimes and domestic terrorism have been on the rise for many years," Jackson said, "but it is unfortunate we cannot have this perpetrator prosecuted on hate crimes in Georgia because there is no law on the books to address it."
Church leaders told local media they believed the teenager idolized Dylann Roof, the self-described white supremacist who in 2015 fatally shot nine black parishioners during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Authorities said Roof "self-radicalized" online and wrote manifestos loaded with racist characterizations of black people. Roof was convicted of 33 federal hate crimes in December 2016.
"We are thankful to God that this plot was stopped before anybody was either killed or injured," Jackson said.
Police said they believe the girl was acting alone and that no other churches were in danger.
The alleged plot came to light Friday when the teenager's fellow students at Gainesville High School told counselors about her notebook, according to police. School officials investigated, then immediately turned the matter over to authorities.
Officers took the teenager into custody while she was at school and notified her parents. They also notified church leaders and provided security at the building, police said.
School Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the girl's alleged actions should not reflect on the school system.
"As a school system that celebrates our diversity, we are beyond stunned with the recent development," he told CNN. "However, we are extremely proud of our students notifying school administration of a possible off-campus threat."
The FBI is assisting Gainesville police in their investigation, but it is unlikely authorities will bring federal charges against her because she is a minor.
Jackson, the bishop, told the Journal-Constitution that he wants to see the girl tried as an adult. "To plan this kind of event," he said, "is not that of a childish mind."