Nov. 20 update: The Hall County District Attorney’s office wants to transfer the case to Superior Court. A motion has been filed in Juvenile Court to do so; a discussion on that is not yet scheduled.
Previous story: A Gainesville High student planned to attack and kill members of a local black church using knives, according to the Gainesville Police Department.
Gainesville school resource officers learned Friday, Nov. 15, that a white, 16-year-old girl had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Mill Street.
Police report she had been planning the attack for the past couple of weeks and that investigators currently believe she was acting alone.
“She had written down how she wanted to do it, the best way to do it,” Police Chief Jay Parrish said during a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 19. “She had procured some butcher knives, kitchen knives, to do the attack with and had actually scouted out the location.”
She was planning to attack a small group possibly during a worship hour, Parrish said. Investigators believe she took her knives with her when she first visited the church intending to “launch the attack,” but “by divine intervention, at the time she went to the church there was no one there.”
“I have no doubt that we thwarted an attack that would have been ugly,” Parrish said.
The investigation indicates the church was targeted based on the race of its members.
Church trustee Shana Ramsey said she was shocked to hear about the alleged plan, as she has nieces and nephews in the same school system.
“Just to think that she has hatred like this in her heart is sad,” Ramsey said.
If Ramsey could meet with the teenager and her family, she said she would pray and ask God to “remove this out of her heart.”
“Maybe if someone could pray with her maybe she would be able to open up and say what it is that maybe she fears or maybe she wants to express or whatever. I think prayer would be the key to her life right now,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said Bethel AME, which has 40 to 50 members in its congregation, is “a church that prays together, and we will stay together.”
“We don’t want anyone to be afraid to come to our church, because we will be here on Sunday morning rejoicing,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. Michelle Rizer-Pool, who leads the congregation at Bethel AME, said she was shocked when notified by police about the alleged attempt.
“When I found out, I drove to the church, went inside it and prayed and anointed my church and asked God to put a hedge of protection around us,” she said. “That was on Friday. On Sunday, I tried to relay what was going on without a lot of emotion so that the congregants would remain calm ...
“You know, I’ve been preaching for a while now about being on the battlefield, being a soldier in God’s army and that if you believe that God is in charge, he won’t allow hurt or harm to come your way. One of my members told me, ‘You’ve been getting us ready.’ I guess I have.”
Rizer-Pool has pastored the church since June 2018. She said the congregation recently celebrated 118 years of service in the community.
“I had asked for active shooting training for the church prior to this but it never happened. Still, I had done a few things to keep us as safe as possible like upgrading the security system, locking the back door and reminding our ushers, our first line of defense, just to be aware of people we don’t know,” she said.
Parrish said he thinks the teen wanted notoriety. He also said, “She is a racist,” adding that police have valid evidence as part of the investigation.
“I don’t know how she’s felt in the past,” he said, “but that’s how she feels at this point in time.”
“It hurts me that someone can have that much hate in their body,” Parrish said. “It hurts me that in almost 2020 we still have that belief running around. So, I’ll say that I’m highly alarmed that someone would feel that way and 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 — that they would plan that as a place of attack and base it solely on skin color. That just hurts my heart.”
The girl, whose name has not been released, was taken into custody and charged with criminal attempt to commit murder. She was transported to the Regional Youth Detention Center in Gainesville.
Her parents were present when she was interviewed by law enforcement and are cooperating with the investigation. Parrish said they do not share their daughter’s views.
“We can verify they don’t have those views,” he said.
Parrish has been working since Saturday with the Hall County District Attorney’s office and said there is a chance the teen could be charged as an adult and the case elevated to Hall County Superior Court.
The FBI is aware of the case but Gainesville Police Department remains the sole agency involved.
An alert student overheard the threat, then notified a school administrator who then notified the school resource officer, Parrish said.
Jeremy Williams, Gainesville City Schools superintendent, said he is proud of the students who came forward about the planned attack.
“When it got brought forward, it was very sobering to know that plans like that do go on in many communities, and in this case, went on in our community,” Williams said. “If it wasn’t for those students turning the information over to administration and (Gainesville High Principal Jamie) Green, we’d be having a different conversation today.”
Police said the church was notified to ensure the threat was being handled. It’s not clear how she settled on plans to attack Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I do know she did a lot of internet research on what she wanted to do. I think she wanted notoriety,” Parrish said. “In that, she looked up African American churches and — although we have many — somehow it landed her on this one and that became the target.”
Reporter Kelsey Podo, Life Editor Nick Bowman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.