A man in Florida was arrested Saturday after driving his vehicle into a Catholic Church and setting the building ablaze while worshipers were preparing for Mass.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said Steven Anthony Shields, 24, crashed his van through the front doors of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala around 7:30 a.m. He got out, poured gasoline in the foyer area and set it on fire, authorities said.
Shields then drove off but was spotted by Deputy Josue Gonzalez, who stopped the vehicle by hitting it with his patrol car, the sheriff’s office said.
Officials said parishioners were not injured. Marion County firefighters quickly doused the fire.
“Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear,” Sheriff Billy Woods said in a statement. “My deputies and I are sworn to protect that right and will always ensure our citizens can worship in peace. I’m proud of my deputies for capturing this man so quickly and we appreciate the assistance from all of the state and federal agencies that worked alongside of us during this investigation.”
According to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Ocala Star-Banner, Shields told investigators what he did was “awesome” and smiled and laughed while admitting to setting the church ablaze.
Shields, who referred to himself as “king” and claimed to be on a “mission,” told a detective he has problems with the Catholic Church, according to the affidavit.
Shields, who lives in nearby Dunnellon, also said he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is not taking his medication, the Star-Banner reported.
Shields is facing multiple charges, including attempted second-degree murder, arson, burglary and attempting to elude. He is being held in the Marion County Jail.
The church foyer was heavily damaged, but Mass was still celebrated Saturday evening in the parish hall, according to the Star-Banner.
According to local media, Shields told police he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but is not currently taking prescribed medication. He said that he awoke on Saturday morning with a “mission,” and that he purchased the gas at a nearby gas station, according to Ocala-News.
Shields also quoted scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, to officers, and telling them his objections to the Catholic Church, Ocala-News reported. He reportedly told officers that he understood the consequences of his action, nevertheless saying the arson was “awesome” and referring to himself as “king.”
In 2019, Shields was arrested after swinging a crowbar at a woman and saying he wanted to kill her. Shields said he wanted to kill the woman with his crowbar so he wouldn’t “dirty his blades,” according to Ocala-News.
In a July 11 statement, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said: “Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear. My deputies and I are sworn to protect that right and will always ensure our citizens can worship in peace. I’m proud of my deputies for capturing this man so quickly and we appreciate the assistance from all of the state and federal agencies that worked alongside of us during this investigation.”
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