A former maintenance worker at a predominantly black south Kansas City church admitted in U.S. District on Friday that he spray-painted racist graffiti on the front entrance and then set a fire to cover up a theft.
Nathaniel D. Nelson, 49, was accused of setting the fire in an office of the Concord Cultural Center, adjacent to the Concord Fortress of Hope Church, where he was also a member.
Prosecutors said Nelson admitted to stealing money from inside the cultural center to buy crack cocaine. Nelson, who is black, said he had spray-painted the graffiti and set the fire in an attempt to throw off investigators.
Fire crews responded to the fire early Oct. 29, 2017, but a sprinkler had extinguished it before they arrived. Investigators determined that an office chair and other combustibles had been intentionally set on fire. The church’s insurance company paid out more than $330,000.
Congregants were greeted that morning with a racial slur, the letters “KKK” and a symbol similar to a swastika on the main entrance.
Nelson was captured on a video inside the foyer just before he unplugged the surveillance system, according to prosecutors. But he was unaware of a second system, which recorded video of him outside spray-painting the graffiti.
He later told investigators that he smoked crack inside his office at the church before trying to break into the finance office, which was the only room he did not have a key for.
Unable to break in, Nelson rummaged through two other offices and stole about $230. He left to buy more crack, returned to the church and broke into two vending machines, but was able to get only a few dollars.
Nelson left again to buy more crack, which he brought back to the church to smoke. He set the fire before leaving.
Nelson had previously served time in prison for arson and burglary and was last released in 2011. He could be sentenced to up to 20 years prison.
A sentencing date has been set for Jan. 17.