By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A Texas man who prosecutors said wanted to "gain status" with the white supremacist gang The Aryan Brotherhood was sentenced to more than 37 years in prison on Wednesday for fire bombing an African American church in an admitted attempt to murder a parishioner.
Steven Scott Cantrell, 26, a resident of the tiny west Texas town of Crane, pleaded guilty in federal court in Midland, Texas, to charges of damaging religious property, arson, and interfering with housing, all prosecuted with a bias crime enhancement.
"When hatred and bigotry are expressed through acts of violence and destruction, this office will use every resource available to ensure that those responsible are found, prosecuted and punished," said Robert Pitman, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas.
"There is simply no room in a civilized society for the kind of conduct Cantrell engaged in," he added.
Cantrell admitted that he set fire to the historic Faith in Christ Church in Crane after he saw an African American man passing by the church in a wheelchair.
Pitman says before setting fire to the four-building complex, Cantrell ransacked the sanctuary and scrawled "racist and threatening graffiti" on the walls.
Cantrell admitted before his sentencing that he was hoping to kill the man, whom he believed lived in a shelter at the church. The man was not hurt.
One week after torching the church, officials say Cantrell wrote a letter to the pastor apologizing for his actions.
Pitman says the church arson was the culmination of a series of racially motivated crimes that Cantrell committed in the small town on December 28, 2010, all in an attempt to "gain status" in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.
Cantrell also set fire to the home of a man he believed to be Jewish. Cantrell told U.S. District Judge Robert Junell on Wednesday he also set a fire at a Crane gym which Cantrell said served Latino and African American customers and is owned by a Caucasian man married to a Mexican-American woman, telling Junell that he felt "disrespected" by their marriage.
"I believed the white race needed to be kept pure," Cantrell told the judge.
In addition to the sentence of 450 months in federal prison, Junell ordered Cantrell to pay more than a half million dollars in restitution to his victims.
"Today's sentence reflects the vile nature of this defendant's actions," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "The department will continue to vigorously prosecute those that commit heinous acts like this one."
(Editing by Peter Bohan)