COLUMBIA, S.C. – A white supremacist has been sentenced to nearly three years in prison for illegally buying a gun authorities say he planned to use in a hate crime attack similar to the South Carolina church shootings.
Benjamin McDowell was sentenced Wednesday to 33 months in federal prison for being a felon in possession of a weapon, according to U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon.
Authorities first began investigating McDowell, 31, in December 2016 when he threatened a Myrtle Beach synagogue on Facebook. Local officials were already keeping tabs on him because he made friends with white supremacist groups and got tattoos associated with racist groups while in prison on a felony burglary charge, according to the FBI.
McDowell then said he wanted a gun and told an undercover FBI agent who offered to get him one that he planned to attack somewhere in the name of white power and write on the building "in the spirit of Dylann Roof," according to court records. Roof was sentenced to death last year for a racist shooting that killed nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
"I seen what Dylann Roof did and in my heart I reckon I got a little bit of hatred," the undercover agent recalled McDowell saying.
Roof's June 2015 massacre happened at Emanuel AME church, and the synagogue the FBI said McDowell threatened was the Temple Emanu-El. In a letter sent to the court prior to McDowell's sentencing, Temple Emanu-El's rabbi wrote that the synagogue had added full-time security during all services, as well as security systems and cameras, after learning of McDowell's plans.
"Some of our members are Holocaust survivors and this case brought back dark memories from the horrible era when 6 million Jews were massacred when their only crime was their Jewish heritage," Rabbi Avi Perets wrote. "Mr. McDowell's actions caused us a tremendous mental anguish and distress."
In multiple recorded conversations with the agent, McDowell "reaffirmed his respect for Dylann Roof and spoke generally about committing acts of violence against people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths," prosecutors said.
McDowell, who couldn't legally own a gun because of the burglary conviction, was arrested after the purchase. Agents said McDowell bought the gun — which had the firing pin shaved down so that it would not work — and ammunition for $109, which he had borrowed from his grandfather.
In a letter submitted to the court, Dr. Charles Conant, a behavioral specialist who has known McDowell for years, wrote that, "socially and emotionally, he functions as a 9 or 10 year old" and hoped that McDowell could get "mental health treatment in a therapeutic environment" while incarcerated.
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