• John Malcolm Bareswill, 63, targeted a church in Virginia Beach
  • He pleaded guilty to making the racially motivated threat in August
  • He was angered by a church leader taking part in a prayer vigil for George Floyd

A North Carolina man who threatened to burn down a Black church in Virginia was handed a two-year prison sentence, prosecutors said Thursday. His sentencing comes three months after he pleaded guilty to making the threat.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in the eastern district of Virginia in a statement, citing court documents, stated that John Malcolm Bareswill, 63, of Catawba called the church located in Virginia Beach on June 7 and threatened to set it on fire because a church leader took part in a prayer vigil held in honor of George Floyd, the African-American man who died in Minnesota in May after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Bareswill also used racial slurs and derogatory remarks during the telephonic conversation that occurred on June 7, according to the statement.

A member of the church, which has a predominantly African-American congregation, reportedly recalled Bareswill saying "you [racial slur] need to shut up" while making the call, according to the affidavit filed in the case.

"John Malcolm Bareswill reacted to a prayer vigil and rally held in memory of George Floyd by threatening to burn down an African American church," G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in the statement.

Bareswill pleaded guilty to a charge of telephonic threat to use fire to kill, injure, or intimidate any individual, or unlawfully to damage or destroy a building in August. The charge attracts a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, but the actual sentence of such federal crimes are determined based on factors such as the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.

"Answering the exercise of constitutional freedoms with threats of violence—especially threats that tap into a long and shameful history of racially-motivated violence against houses of worship—requires swift and certain justice. Bareswill’s threat terrified the adult Sunday school teachers who heard it and affected the entire church community. While this sentence cannot undo that harm, it sends an important message: Our community will not tolerate attempts to silence free speech or interfere with the free exercise of religion," Terwilliger said in the statement.

Old Church
Pictured: Representative image of the ruins of an old church. Richard Mcall/Pixabay