May 31, 2023

A Pickerington man admitted in federal court on Wednesday to setting fire to a church in Fairfield County in 2021.

Benjamin Darrell Ruckel, 25, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Columbus to violating the federal Church Arson Prevention Act when he set fire to Mount Zion Church in Baltimore, Ohio, on Nov. 27, 2021.

Ruckel broke the church’s windows and spread accelerant before setting the church on fire, according to the office of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Kenneth Parker.

Ruckel admitted during his arraignment Wednesday that he deliberately set the building on fire because it is a church, Parker’s office said in a release.

Ruckel will be sentenced at a later date. He faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

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Mark Collins, Ruckel’s lawyer, told The Dispatch that Ruckel suffers from schizophrenia – a brain disorder that can cause delusions and begins to affect people who are usually in their mid-twenties.

“Unfortunately, schizophrenia affects people ages 25 to 26 and he was hit pretty hard by it,” Collins said. “This is his first step in taking responsibility.”

Collins said Ruckel is now receiving mental health treatment and is doing well.

Parker said every resident should be free to worship without any criminal acts against them or their place of worship.

“Fighting these types of unlawful acts is a priority for my office, and together with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to vigorously use every criminal law enforcement tool at our disposal to address civil rights violations,” Parker said.

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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said Ruckel is being held responsible for this devastating church arson attack that affected an entire community of believers.

“The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that religious practices are protected from violent interference and will continue to prosecute those who commit acts of violence against places of worship because of their religious nature,” Clarke said.

J. William Rivers, FBI Special Agent in Cincinnati, said freedom of religion is a cornerstone of our nation and that the FBI will continue to protect Americans’ rights to worship safely.

“As the lead agency for investigating criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes, the FBI works closely with law enforcement, religious organizations and community groups to reduce civil rights violations,” Rivers said.

Ruckel was also charged in Fairfield County for this crime, but that case was dropped after a plea deal was reached in federal court.

In an unrelated case, another Ohio man has also been charged with violating the federal church arson prevention law and faces other charges for allegedly attempting to burn down a church in Geauga County on March 25 to prevent a cross-dressing show from taking place there.

Aimenn Penny, 20, of Alliance, who is a member of a “white lives matter” group espousing racist and neo-Nazi views, attempted to use Molotov cocktails to set fire to the Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio, east of Cleveland, because he wanted to “protect the kids and stop the drag show,” authorities claimed in unsealed court documents.

The church, which was empty at the time, had scorch marks on the front door but otherwise sustained minimal damage from the failed arson attempt, the FBI said. According to court documents, investigators found broken glass from a vodka bottle and a beer bottle, each containing a dust-like material, along with a burnt matchstick and a blue plastic spray bottle filled with gasoline.

Penny could face up to 50 years in prison if convicted.

Drag shows have become a target of conservative groups and leaders across the country, some claiming the art form sexually grooms children. However, performers and event organizers say the shows are harmless entertainment and those who protest against them terrorize and harm children and turn them into political pawns.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


This article originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch: Pickerington Man Admits to Burning Fairfield County Church