Former church employee pleads guilty to arson

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A former church maintenance worker pleaded guilty in federal court to arson after setting a fire at Concord Cultural Center in Kansas City, Mo., and spray-painting racist graffiti on the front of the adjoining church, Concord Fortress of Hope, in an effort to cover up his burglary.

Nathaniel D. Nelson, 49, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips to the charge contained in a Nov. 16, 2017, federal indictment.

Nelson was a member of the church who was employed as a maintenance worker at the church and cultural center, located at 11040 W. Longview Parkway, Kansas City, Mo. Firefighters were called by a church employee and responded to the cultural center on Sunday morning, Oct. 29, 2017. A fire had occurred in an office inside the building but a sprinkler had activated and extinguished the fire prior to the arrival of firefighters. Investigators concluded that an office chair and other ordinary combustible material had been intentionally ignited using an open flame. 

According to the church’s insurance company, the fire, fire suppression efforts, and other damage resulted in payouts to date in excess of $330,000. Under the terms of today’s plea agreement, Nelson must pay restitution, which will be determined by the court at the sentencing hearing.

Investigators also discovered racist graffiti spray-painted on the front of the church. A racial slur, the letters “KKK” and a symbol similar to a swastika were visible from the main entrance into the parking lot as members of the congregation arrived at the church for Sunday morning services.

Nelson admitted he set the fire to conceal his breaking into the church offices and vending machines. Nelson also admitted he spray-painted the outside to further conceal his identity.

The digital video recorder for the video surveillance system that monitored the foyer area and the cultural center’s interior and exterior cameras were unplugged and no longer recording when examined by investigators. Investigators determined that the DVR system lost power sometime after 1 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, and had been intentionally unplugged.

A review of the DVR system revealed that Nelson was in the foyer area shortly before the DVR system was deactivated. A second DVR, which was still powered on, recorded the video surveillance footage for the interior and exterior cameras located inside and outside of the church, which were separate from the cameras located in the cultural center and foyer. The second DVR captured video footage of Nelson spray painting the front of the church. Nelson admitted he deactivated one DVR to hide his actions and identity. He did not know that video was being recorded on a separate system inside the church, which captured him spray-painting the outside of the building.

Under federal statutes, Nelson is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison without parole, up to a sentence of 20 years in federal prison without parole. The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes, as the sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the court based on the advisory sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2019.

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