A Twisted Church Attack Shows the High Bar for Hate Crimes in America
After the Georgia spa shootings sparked outrage and demands for hate-crime charges, the feds homed in on another incident in Florida.
MIAMI—Members of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida, were busy prepping for an early morning Saturday Mass on July 11, 2020, when a white minivan sped through the parking lot, jumped the curb, and crashed through the doors.
The van backed up and, according to prosecutors, 25-year-old Steven Shields jumped out. He allegedly grabbed two five-gallon containers of gas and clumsily spread it around the foyer of the 35-year-old church, slipping and soaking his clothes and shoes.
As Father John O’Doherty and an elderly parishioner watched in shock, Shields allegedly removed one of his shoes, lit it with a lighter, and tossed it into the foyer, setting a blaze.
The van sped off, but Shields was soon arrested after a short chase. He was charged with attempted second-degree murder, arson, burglary, and a slew of driving-related offenses. Perhaps most disturbingly, an arrest affidavit revealed Shields had intentionally targeted the Catholic church because of a “mission.”
But even as the church was damaged, no one was injured, and its leaders made a show of forgiving the suspect for what could have been deadly crimes.
Federal prosecutors took a different approach. On March 18—eight months after the attack—they announced Shields would be charged with a federal hate crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, as well as a mandatory minimum of 10 years for using fire to commit a felony.
The hate-crime charges came down two days after 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long drove to three different spas in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, and shot and killed eight people, including six Asian women. The gruesome shootings drew especially intense condemnation from the Asian American community in the United States, as well as swift calls for hate-crime charges. But so far, at least, those charges have not come down at the local or federal level, even as advocates decry a massive spike in violence against Asian people.
The divergent paths of the two cases—both involving what advocates say is evidence of hate and targeted animus, but only one involving death—offer a window into what some call an excessively high bar for punishing hate in America.
Interviews with experts, people familiar with the suspect, and members of the community Shields is accused of targeting paint a picture of a disturbed and mentally ill young man.
They also suggest he’s being prosecuted this way because his own statements made such charges relatively easy for law enforcement.
“You got a guy who is gleefully happy to tell you in painstaking detail why he hates Catholics,” Christopher Macchiaroli, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., and South Florida, told The Daily Beast.
Shields’ family did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. His lawyer also did not respond to a request for comment. Shields pleaded not guilty to his federal charges and is currently being held in a Marion County jail.
In an interview with an FBI agent and a Marion County Sheriff’s Office detective summarized in one federal court filing, Shields said he’d always been suspicious of Catholics and believed Queen of Peace to be “the biggest and most abominable” Catholic church in the area.
Before he allegedly drove his minivan into the church, Shields said he thought to himself, “There’s no way I’m not doing this—the Church is a curse!” The court filing also reveals Shields’ 2018 diagnosis for schizophrenia, a recent suicide attempt, and that he’d stopped taking his antipsychotic medications a few months before the attack.
He told investigators he was treating himself with weed instead.
After the attack, O’Doherty and other church leaders emphasized grace. In a video uploaded days after the fire, O'Doherty said the attack was proof the church was doing something good in the community. He told members not to be afraid and asked them to pray a well-known prayer of forgiveness. “Because God wants everybody to be saved.”
The bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, John Noonan, likewise preached redemption. “It is very important that if we are called to be Christ-like, then we must be forgiving,” he said.
Still, Macchiaroli noted that according to the feds, Shields also admitted to specifically targeting Queen of Peace because it was one of the bigger churches in the area. “You could not get clearer evidence in a case,” he said. “His own statements make clear he had this strongly held belief and it was because of the group’s religion, and this was exactly the motivation to why he did it.”
Queen of Peace and the Diocese of Orlando declined to comment for this story. But Michael Shortal, the director of music at a nearby Presbyterian church who worked 14-hour days clearing out the charred insides of Queen of Peace after the fire, said most members he spoke to were simply shocked by what took place. “Disbelief,” he said, summing up their emotions.
He hadn’t heard of rallying cries for the hate-crime charges, though Shortal said they made sense to him. “I think it falls along the same line as when the synagogues in the South were bombed or attacks on mosques,” he told The Daily Beast. “You may not agree with them. But at least leave them be.”
Heidi Maier, a frequent visitor of the church and recently confirmed Catholic, said she was far more conflicted.
Maier said that if she looks at the crime “logically,” it checks the boxes of a hate crime. “But isn’t every crime a hate crime? I don’t know,” she continued, adding that she had learned about Shields’ struggles with mental health and had sympathy for him. “There’s got to be something more there, mentally, to have done that, and I just seek to understand.”
It seems to her, she said, he slipped through the cracks somewhere along the lines.
A former co-worker of Shields who spoke under the condition of anonymity agreed. They said they worked with Shields at an Ocala Italian Restaurant for about a year between 2013 and 2014, and remembered the suspect as a quiet but friendly teenager who liked to talk about music.
The two remained friends on Facebook but didn’t see each other much after quitting the restaurant job. “The couple times I saw him after that were in mugshots,” the former co-worker said. “You could see the difference in his face,” they added, noting they wondered if something was going on psychologically, or if Shields was dabbling in drugs.
“He just didn’t look like Steven anymore.”
Shields’ first encounter with police was in 2016, when a man who lived about five minutes away from him in Dunnellon, Florida, said his step-son—a minor at the time—called him high on weed and said he thought he was going to die. The minor told police he was skateboarding near an abandoned house when Shields offered them the chance to smoke out of a bong he’d fashioned out of a Dasani water bottle, according to an arrest affidavit. He said he declined, but that Shields pressured them and said “nothing would happen” if they smoked.
Shields, 20 at the time, later admitted to smoking up the minors but denied pressuring them. He was arrested on a charge of possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges were later dropped.
His previous run-ins with police in Marion County also include a 2019 arrest for swinging a crowbar at his mother and telling her to lay on the ground so he can kill her, according to an arrest affidavit. Shields told police he wanted to kill his mom because she was a “stupid bitch.” He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and pleaded no contest to a lesser charge. He was sentenced to 150 days in jail.
After his 2016 arrest, an arrest affidavit listed his religion as “none.” By 2019, a separate affidavit listed it as “God.”
In a federal court filing summarizing his interview with investigators immediately after the church fire, evidence of Shields’ deteriorated mental state was on full display. He said that the night before the attack, he bought little girls’ panties and wore them to “feel good” and get the sin out of his system.
He also described three murders he’d supposedly committed—but said that after each one, God brought his victims back to life so he wouldn’t go to hell. Shields said one victim was named Jaime and described her as an evil rich girl from his high school, adding that he’d killed her in class by shoving her on the ground, stomping on her head, and eating part of her brain. Nothing was reported to the police, he said, because she came back to life. He then told investigators that she’d sent a CIA agent to kill him by shooting him in the leg with a “poison pellet” made from a puffer fish.
He said he dodged the pellet and survived.
Macchiaroli said that Shields’ mental health will play a large role in his case, but doubted that it would affect the hate-crime charge because of the strategy that went into the attack. “This is not something where he just picked up a rock when he was walking and talking to himself and threw it,” he said. “He had to go get the gas, he had to drive to the location. This shows planning.”
In a recent federal court filing, Shields’ public defender, Christine Bird, said Shields has “a significant mental health history and is likely incompetent to proceed.” She requested a delay to his trial originally scheduled for June so she could consult mental health professionals, and was granted it without a fight from prosecutors.
Macchiaroli, who vetted potential hate-crime charges during his time with the Department of Justice, said evidence for hate-crime charges in the case against Long—the alleged Georgia shooter—wasn’t as obvious.
“What are you going to point to?” he said. “If you can’t come up with anything besides circumstantial, ‘Well, most of the people were Asian, so it must be,’ well, that is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Long has been charged with multiple counts of murder in two different Georgia counties. Prosecutors there did not respond to a request for comment on the prospect of hate-crime charges. And in a statement to The Daily Beast, an FBI spokesman in Atlanta said the agency was in touch with local authorities in Georgia. “If, in the course of the local investigations, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate,” they said. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia did not respond to a request for comment.
To be confident hate-crime charges would stick, Macchiaroli said, prosecutors ideally need previous statements against Asians made by Long, a social-media or internet browsing history that points to anti-Asian sentiments, or even photos of him wearing clothing that displays messages disparaging Asians. (Perhaps like the T-shirt promoted by local sheriff spokesman Jay Baker on his Facebook page with the slogan: “COVID-19 imported virus from CHY-NA.”)
In a post-arrest interview, authorities say Long immediately confessed and said the shootings were motivated by his addiction to sex, a line echoed by law enforcement to the chagrin of activists. He also denied any racial motivation, and while his social-media accounts showed off his passion for God and guns, they did not immediately produce evidence of animus toward Asians.
Without the latter, Macchiaroli said, a hate-crime charge would be thin and could give ammunition to the defense in a trial. “It’s really not that simple,” he said. “You don’t want to go with a weak charge when you have really strong charges.”
Stanley Mark, senior staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, disagreed. He noted that Long chose to drive to specific spas and passed a number of other adult entertainment businesses along the way. “He picked these places and these places were owned and operated by Asians,” Mark told The Daily Beast.
Mark added that while there may not be much direct evidence of anti-Asian sentiments from Long based on his words or past, “there is a hell of a lot more evidence in the context of this recent spike of anti-Asian violence that’s been going on since last year.”
Indeed, on Thursday, Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that tracks incidents of bias against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., released a report documenting 6,603 bias incidents between March 2020 and March 2021. The latest report includes more than 2,800 new incidents since a previous report released on March 16. The vast majority of the incidents are categorized under verbal harassment or name-calling and take place in businesses or public streets, according to the report. But stabbings and other attacks, some of them deadly, have been inescapable in recent weeks.
Mark said the investigation into Long should take this into account, along with animus against Asian Americans that bubbled to the surface during the pandemic and thanks to the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.
“During the investigative stage, you should be able to consider it as a factor and not discount it,” he said.
Mark said he would like to see prosecutors take a swing at a hate crime in cases like Long’s rather than writing it off—even if the charge gets thrown out or doesn’t stick. “If the jury doesn’t convict, then, you know it went through the whole legal process,” he said. “Let the chips fall where they may.”
He argued that in Long’s case, the murder charges will stand either way, and that a serious investigation of a hate-crime charge against a suspect like Long would give confidence to the Asian American community that the justice system is “trying to correct itself.”
Even if he was skeptical in Long’s case, Macchiaroli, the former prosecutor, believes the culture around hate crimes is changing and forcing prosecutors to be more proactive about charging for them than they have in the past. He said calls from victimized communities are important, and force prosecutors to make sure they’ve vetted all possibilities.
As for Maier, the member of the church Shields allegedly targeted, she’s taking her cues from Father O’Doherty, who she said has delivered numerous sermons emphasizing Saint Dismas, the name given by Catholics to a thief crucified next to Jesus before his death. In the Gospel of Luke, the thief recognizes Jesus as God and is told he will be with him “in paradise.”
Maier said the sermons helped lead her to forgiveness for Shields. “I think that’s pretty profound.”