O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — A man accused of setting a fire that destroyed an Islamic center in southeast Missouri has been charged with a federal hate crime, the U.S. Attorney’s office in St. Louis said Tuesday.
A federal grand jury indicted 42-year-old Nicholas J. Proffitt in the April fire that destroyed the Cape Girardeau Islamic Center, the office said in a statement. Proffitt is charged with damaging religious property because of the property’s religious character, using fire to commit a federal felony, and damaging a building used in interstate commerce through use of fire.
Proffitt, of Cape Girardeau, was earlier charged with state counts that included first-degree burglary, first-degree arson and first-degree property damage motivated by discrimination — a state hate crime.
Proffitt’s attorney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
A Muslim advocacy group, which had called for a hate crime investigation after the fire, on Tuesday praised authorities for charging Proffitt with a hate crime.
“This hate crime charge is a clear signal to Muslims in Cape Girardeau and beyond that U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen stands ready to protect the Muslim community and will deploy the resources necessary to do so,” said Yasir Ali, board chairman for the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations.
Proffitt spent time in prison for defacing the same Islamic center more than a decade ago. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to state charges for throwing rocks that damaged the mosque and a vehicle in the parking lot. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
The latest fire was discovered shortly before 5 a.m. on April 24, at the outset of the Muslim holy month Ramadan. Federal prosecutors said the center’s video security system showed Proffitt throwing several objects through a window, then throwing two containers into the center through the broken glass.
According to federal prosecutors, Proffitt stepped into the building through the broken window, picked up the containers and began pouring an apparent liquid accelerant before he lit a fire that began immediately.
There were 12 to 15 people inside the building at the time who all escaped without injury, police said.
Cape Girardeau, a town of 40,000 residents, is about 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of St. Louis.