Nicholas Proffitt, suspect in Islamic center arson, has a history of attacking mosques — including one in Dearborn

Apr 28, 2020 at 12:03 pm
Investigators say Nicholas Proffitt is the man recorded in this surveillance video still photo. - Courtesy of Cape Girardeau Police
Courtesy of Cape Girardeau Police
Investigators say Nicholas Proffitt is the man recorded in this surveillance video still photo.

A Missouri man has been arrested for setting an Islamic center on fire in what authorities believe was a hate-fueled attack.

Nicholas Proffitt, 42, of Cape Girardeau, was taken into custody on Monday and charged with felonies of first-degree arson, first-degree burglary, and first-degree property damage — a charge that could come with more serious penalties because investigators believe he was motivated by a bias against Muslims.

He is accused of lighting a fire early Friday morning at the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau that damaged the building beyond repair and sent several families who lived inside scrambling for their lives.

It was at least his third arrest in the past fifteen years related to destruction at an Islamic center — and his second at the one in Cape Girardeau.

In 2005, when Proffitt was known by a different name, Nicholas Stearns, he was arrested for trashing a mosque in Dearborn, not far from where he lived at the time.

Then 27 years old, he was accused of drunkenly smashing the building's windows with rocks, punching holes in the siding, and pouring some kind of chemical on a wheelchair-accessible ramp. The local newspaper reported that police responded to a 3:38 a.m. call at the Islamic House of Wisdom and caught him as he tried to escape through a side door. He still had two large rocks in his pockets when they brought him to the police station.

But cops just figured he was just an idiot, not someone with a hatred of Muslims.

"It was just a drunk guy with a rock," a Dearborn Heights police lieutenant told the Press & Guide newspaper in 2005, explaining why they weren't pursuing hate crime charges. "He would have done the same thing if he had been at a Farmer Jack."

The lieutenant may have been right that Proffitt would have trashed a store in the right situation. But Proffitt continues to get arrested for attacks on mosques.

In 2009, he was living in Jackson, Missouri, when he was arrested for smashing windows at the Islamic Center of Cape Girardeau, the Southeast Missourian newspaper reported at the time. This time, prosecutors saw it as a hate crime, and he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of property damage motivated by discrimination as well as one count of driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to two three-year terms to be served simultaneously.

Early Friday morning, an arsonist struck the same Cape Girardeau center while it was still dark. The bulk of the damage occurred at the front entrance and second floor. Interior photos later posted to a GoFundMe page show charred rooms and walls that are were all but obliterated during the fire. The blaze was the first day of Ramadan.

After the fire, the FBI offered a $5,000 reward for information about the suspected arson. A surveillance photo distributed by Cape Girardeau police and the FBI on Monday morning showed a man in a hooded sweatshirt, whom they identified as their suspect. Authorities now believe the figure in the black-and-white image was Proffitt. By Monday evening, they had taken him into custody.

The ex-con was being held at the city's police station. A no-bond warrant had been issued.

Originally published by our sister paper, St. Louis Riverfront Times.

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