FLORENCE, S.C. -- Benjamin McDowell will remain in jail for at least a little while after the FBI said the convicted felon wanted to buy a gun to use in a hate crime similar to the South Carolina church shootings two years ago.
McDowell’s lawyer told a judge in Florence on Tuesday that the man federal agents called a white supremacist didn’t want a bond hearing now on a charge of being a felon in possession of a weapon.
McDowell’s lawyer also decided not to have a preliminary hearing where the judge would decide if the government did have enough evidence to charge him.
Authorities first began investigating McDowell in December when he threatened a Myrtle Beach synagogue on Facebook. Local officials were already keeping tabs on him because he made friends with white supremacists groups and got tattoos associated with racist groups while in prison on a felony burglary charge, the FBI said in a sworn statement.
McDowell then said he wanted a gun and told the 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 month for killing nine black Charleston church worshippers in a racially motivated attack. The synagogue the FBI said McDowell threatened was the Temple Emanu-El. Roof’s June 2015 massacre happened at Emanuel AME church.
McDowell, 29, never specified a target, but the undercover FBI agent recounted several conversations where McDowell expressed racist views.
“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.
McDowell said almost nothing in court. As he shuffled into the courtroom, his hands and ankles shackled, he craned his head to see his mother. She mouthed “I love you,” wiping her eyes with a tissue, and he mouthed “I love you” back.
McDowell held his hands up to his family in a prayer pose as he left. His mother said her son was religious and his remarks to the undercover FBI agent include several comments about fighting for Yahweh, a form of the Hebrew name for God.
In an interview with CBS affiliate WBTW last week, McDowell’s mother Joann Clewis said her son never spoke about plotting an attack.
“He didn’t say, ‘Momma, I’m gonna go do it,’ or nothing like that,” Clewis said. “I raised him better than that.”
Clewis told the station her son spoke about Roof after the June 2015 church attack.
“He just said you know, ‘That boy was brave and he made headlines you know as a white boy,’” Clewis said, recalling the conversaion with her son. “And he said, ‘But he was wrong, you know, to go in the church and shoot up like he did.’ And he said, you know, ‘He stood up for the white people.’”
She said her son spoke about Black Lives Matter protesters and said, “That’s not right that they can stand up and we can’t.”
Clewis said she had been living with her son, but he left shortly before his arrest, telling her he was going to Alabama. He asked her for $109 to pay a man to take him there, where he said he had a job waiting on him. Court documents state McDowell had agreed to purchase a .40 caliber Glock and hollow point ammunition from the undercover agents for approximately $109, according to WBTW.
“He said, ‘Momma’, he said, ‘I got to leave the nest,” Clewis said. “He said I can’t depend on you cause if something happens to you, I need to know what to do, and what I’m supposed to do.”
McDowell has several convictions in South Carolina for burglary and at least one for assault, which made it illegal for him to possess a gun. He was arrested last week shortly after buying a gun, which had the firing pin shaved down so it wouldn’t work, and ammunition from the undercover agent for $109 he borrowed from his grandfather, the FBI said.
Outside the courthouse, Clewis said she could say little about her son’s case other than he is innocent until proven guilty and she was stunned at his arrest. She said he was a good man and a wonderful son as other family members waiting on her in a car blocked the street in front of the courthouse and honked the horn.
“I just wanted to hug him,” she said.