Wayne County man pleads guilty to threatening Black churchgoer

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A 22-year-old Wayne County man pleaded guilty Wednesday to threatening an African American churchgoer online and obstructing her free exercise of religion, federal officials announced.

As part of his plea agreement, Ronald Wyatt admitted he targeted the woman because of her race, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.

During a plea hearing in U.S. District Court, Wyatt admitted that he used Facebook to send the woman a message on July 23, 2019, that read: “See you at church on Wednesday night with my AK to put you and your [expletive] family down [expletive].”

The victim regularly attended a Taylor church that Wyatt had also frequented and lived near; the then-21-year-old defendant told an investigator he "stopped going because he felt he was judged for using marijuana," according to a criminal complaint filed last year.

Wyatt also confirmed he sent the Facebook message from an account he created in an acquaintance's name, an FBI agent wrote in the filing.

In federal court on Wednesday, Wyatt "admitted that, by sending the threatening message, he acted intentionally to obstruct (the woman's) free exercise of her religious beliefs," authorities said in a statement. "Wyatt further admitted that he threatened (the woman) because she is African-American, and that he intended for (her) to understand his message as a threat."

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who serves the Eastern District of Michigan, called Wyatt's actions "truly reprehensible."

“Although the First Amendment protects free speech, it doesn’t give anyone the right to obstruct the free exercise of religious beliefs by threatening violence or bodily harm," Schneider said. "Prosecuting those who violate the civil rights of Michigan citizens is some of the most important work we do. This plea today is the first step towards justice for this innocent victim.”

Through the plea agreement, Wyatt's sentencing is set to take place in a year, federal officials said Wednesday. He faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

“Hate crimes like this one have profound effects not only on the victims, but also on their families and communities, making them feel vulnerable and unsafe," said Steven D’Antuono, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit field office. "No arrest or conviction can undo the harm, but will hopefully provide a measure of justice for the victim, her family and her community.”