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N.C. Man Allegedly Threatened to Burn Down African American Church, Used a Racial Slur During Phone Call

People walk past the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C. 

The Department of Justice has charged a 63-year-old North Carolina man who allegedly threatened to burn down a Virginia Beach church that “serves a predominantly African American congregation.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of Virginia, John Malcolm Bareswill called the landline of an African American church on June 7, used a racial slur (“you [racial slur] need to shut up”) and then threatened to burn down the house of worship in violation of federal law.

Special Agent Alex L. Cava said in an affidavit that a joint investigation involving the City of Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD) and the City of Virginia Beach Fire Department resulted in the following facts:

On June 2, 2020, a leader of the church was one of several ministers who took part in a prayer vigil and peaceful demonstration, which included a moment of silence for George Floyd, in the Mount Trashmore area of Virginia Beach.

On June 7, 2020, a church member informed VBPD that on the morning of June 7, 2020, between approximately 10:00 AM and 11:30 AM, an unknown male (UM) caller had called the church’s land line telephone. The telephone call was answered by Witness 1, a member of the church, who placed the call on speakerphone, which allowed Witness 2, also a church member, to overhear the conversation. Three young children were also present. The UM stated words to the effect of “you [racial slur] need to shut up” and threatened to set fire to the church. Witness 1 and Witness 2 were both disturbed by the call and concerned for their own safety and that of the church.

Authorities traced the phone number of the caller to Bareswill, who allegedly admitted that it was his personal cell phone number but claimed he didn’t call any church on the morning of June 7—and couldn’t have made the call because he was asleep at the time.

Investigators said they searched Bareswill’s phone and found search history like “Who said all whites are racist” and “Black Lives Matter protest held in Virginia”:

BARESWILL provided investigators written consent to search his mobile telephone. An FBI forensic examiner made a digital image of the phone. Upon review of the phone’s contents, investigators discovered that BARESWILL recently had used his mobile telephone to search the internet for several phrases, including: “Who said all whites are racist,” “Black Lives Matter protest held in Virginia,” and “Who organized the protests from mount trashmore to town center.” Furthermore, the review of the phone revealed that its user recently had searched for information about at least three predominantly African American religious institutions in the area, including the church that received the threatening telephone call.

Records obtained from BARESWILL’s mobile telephone service provider showed that an outgoing call was placed by that phone on June 7, 2020, at 10:44 AM, to the church’s phone number. Telephone records of the church showed a corresponding incoming call from BARESWILL’s mobile telephone number on June 7, 2020, at 10:44 AM. Furthermore, BARESWILL’s mobile telephone records indicated that the prefix “*67” was used when the call was placed. The use of the *67 prefix code blocks the originating caller’s telephone number from being identified by the receiving party’s “Caller ill” function.

Bareswill has been charged under 18 U.S.C. § 844(e), which makes it a federal crime to use a phone to threaten to “kill, injure, or intimidate any individual or unlawfully to damage or destroy any building … or other real or personal property by means of fire or an explosive.” The crime is punishable upon conviction by up to 10 years in prison.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement that “[t]hreats meant to silence or intimidate people because of their race or religion, like the one allegedly made here, have our highest priority.”

“No one should be made to fear for their safety or the safety of their church for speaking out, and we will seek justice for victims of those who allegedly violate that right,” he added.

[Image via Samuel Corum/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.