Law enforcement officers arrested a Florida pastor Wednesday as he drove to a park to light nearly 3,000 Qurans on fire to protest the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Polk County sheriff's deputies arrested Pastor Terry Jones, 61, and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp Jr., 44, each on a felony charge of unlawful conveyance of fuel as they traveled in a pickup truck towing a large barbecue-style grill filled with Qurans soaked in kerosene. Jones had doused the Qurans after he met Sapp at a McDonald's, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Wednesday night.
Sheriff's officials said that Jones was also charged with unlawful open-carry of a firearm, a misdemeanor, and that Sapp faces a charge of having no valid registration for the trailer.
When Jones got out of his vehicle at the McDonald's on State Road 60 in Mulberry he was openly carrying a firearm, Judd said.
“As he prepared to go to the park to burn the Qurans as he said he was going to do in violation of the law, the next thing he did was opened up a drum, a container, that he towed behind his truck. And then he took kerosene and doused the Qurans in the parking lot of McDonald’s," Judd said at a press conference. "The McDonald’s manager came and told him to leave. Well, now what he’s done is he’s taken a flammable liquid from a legal container and put it or poured it into an illegal container."
Deputies stopped Jones after he drove onto State Road 37, just north of State Road 60, Judd said, and arrested both men for their violations of the law.
The flammable materials that Jones was pulling down the road could have been dangerous, the sheriff indicated.
“He was potentially driving a bomb down the road had there been a crash," Judd said.
Both men were being booked Wednesday night into the Polk County jail, according to Judd.
Mulberry's mayor, along with area elected officials, a sheriff's deputy and several Polk County residents have talked about the need to express love and tolerance for all faiths on Sept. 11.
Jones is the pastor of a small evangelical Christian church. He first gained attention in 2010 when he planned to burn a Quran on 9/11, although he eventually called it off. His congregation did burn the Muslim holy book in March 2011 and last year he promoted an anti-Muslim film. All three incidents sparked violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The most violent protest happened after the 2011 Quran burning as hundreds of protesters stormed a U.N. compound in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing seven foreigners, including four Nepalese guards.
Jones has repeatedly ignored pleas from the U.S. military asking him not to stage his protests. Military officials say his actions put American and Western troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in danger.
Mulberry is a town of about 3,000 between Orlando and Tampa and has no connection to Jones' church, which recently moved out of its Gainesville building.
Judd said Wednesday that Jones “has made it abundantly clear that he intended to come to Polk County and express his First Amendment rights by burning Qurans.”
Jones had said he would burn 2,998 Qurans — one for every victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
At first Jones was going to do it at a local resident’s home, until the man decided he didn’t want that to happen. Then Jones said he would burn the holy books and make a public statement at Loyce Harpe Park in Mulberry, Judd said. But the pastor didn’t make an effort to get a permit until the latter part of last week, which was not enough time, and officials turned down his request, Judd said.
“He then told our detectives that he was going to come to the park without a permit and that he was going to burn the Qurans on the park property. We explained clearly to him that that was a violation of law,” the sheriff said.
Authorities told him he had a First Amendment right to free speech, and encouraged him to make any statements he wanted at the park.
But, Judd said, “We clearly told him, if you come to Polk County and violate the law, you will go to jail and that’s the way it is.”
An Egyptian court convicted Jones, along with seven Egyptian Coptic Christians in absentia, sentencing them to death on charges linked to the film. The ruling was seen as largely symbolic because Jones and the other defendants live outside of Egypt.
Just last week, a federal judge in Michigan issued a summary judgment in favor of Jones and his organization, Stand Up America Now, against the city of Dearborn for requiring Jones and his organization to sign a city-issued agreement in order to speak on public property in front of a Dearborn mosque in 2012.
Earlier Wednesday, about 75 people gathered In Mulberry for an interfaith prayer service to counter Jones' actions.
Mike Ghouse, who has organized a 9/11 prayer service in his home state of Texas for nine years, brought his event to Mulberry because of Jones' planned Quran burning. He initially had planned to hold the service in Texas but teamed with a group of Mulberry residents who had organized an anti-Jones Facebook page.
"Everyone has a right to believe what they believe," said Ghouse, adding that it was Jones' right as an American to express himself. Others said that while Jones was free to say or do whatever he wanted, the people of Mulberry didn't want the world to think that the residents condone or agree with Jones' views.
"We don't buy what Jones is selling," said Polk County resident Butch Rahman.
More Florida Stories:
- Authorities Check for Fugitives at Miami International Airport on Anniversary of 9/11
- Plantation Job Fair Focuses on Veterans on 9/11
- Deputy Injured in Crash on I-95 in Pompano Beach