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Friday, January 27, 2023

Dunnellon man allegedly admits to crashing vehicle into church and setting it on fire

Steven Anthony Shields

A Dunnellon man is behind bars after allegedly admitting to purposely crashing his vehicle into the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala and setting it on fire Saturday morning while parishioners were inside.

Marion County Sheriff’s deputies and crews from Marion County Fire Rescue responded to Queen of Peace Catholic Church, located at 6455 State Road 200, at 7:35 a.m. after a 911 caller reported the vehicle crash and fire in the lobby area of the building. Arriving deputies were told that 24-year-old Steven Anthony Shields had intentionally crashed his vehicle through the front doors of the church, poured gasoline into the foyer area and then lit it on fire, a sheriff’s office report states.

Witnesses said Shields then drove away from the church and he was spotted a short time later by Dep. Josue Gonzales, who gave chase. Shields fled from the area until Gonzales was able to use a PIT maneuver to disable his vehicle in the 5900 block of S. U.S. Hwy. 441. Shields was then taken into custody and transported to the sheriff’s office for questioning.

The parishioners escaped from the church without injury. Crews from Marion County Fire Rescue Friendship Station #21 arrived on scene at 7:40 a.m., followed closely by Liberty Station #32. The firefighters made an aggressive interior attack and had the flames under control within seven minutes of arrival.

Flames damaged the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala on Saturday morning after Steven Anthony Shields allegedly crashed his vehicle into the building and set it on fire.

During questioning, Shields, who smelled of gasoline, allegedly admitted to setting the church foyer on fire. He indicated that he targeted the Catholic Church because of a “mission,” the report says.

Shields told deputies about problems he had with the Catholic Church and mentioned several Biblical references to the Book of Revelations and Bible scripture. He described his actions as “awesome” and smiled and laughed while talking about the incident, stating that he was the “king,” the report says.

Shields allegedly told deputies that he had realized his “mission” Sunday morning and drove to a nearby gas station to purchase the gas. He acknowledged seeing a woman in the church foyer during the incident and indicated she had asked him if he was OK after he drove through the doors, the report says.

Marion County firefighters enter the fire-damaged Queen of Peace Catholic Church on State Road 200 in Ocala on Saturday morning.
The front lobby area of the Queen of Peace Catholic Church was damaged Saturday morning after Steven Anthony Shields allegedly slammed his vehicle into the building and lit it on fire.

Shields also allegedly indicated that he has been diagnosed with Schizophrenia and is not currently taking his medication. He made several statements indicating that he understood the consequences of his actions and knew that what he was doing was wrong, including statements evidencing how he planned to commit the offense and statements evidencing that he took deliberate action after fleeing the scene to avoid being caught by law enforcement officers, the report says.

Shields was then transported to the Marion County Jail, where he is being held without bond on the following charges:

  • One count of attempted second degree murder, evidencing prejudice (a
    first‐degree felony);
  • One count of arson to a structure (where persons are normally present and which Shields had reasonable grounds to believe to be occupied by a human being), evidencing prejudice (a life felony);
  • One count of burglary of an occupied structure (with intent to commit a forcible felony with assault while armed, using a motor vehicle as an instrumentality and causing damage to the structure in excess of $1,000), while evidencing prejudice (a life felony); and
  • One count of felony fleeing or attempting to elude.

Sheriff Billy Woods said he’s proud of the quick actions by his deputies and other law enforcement agencies that resulted in the quick capture of Shields.

“Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear,” he said. “My deputies and I are sworn to protect that right and will always ensure our citizens can worship in peace.”

Steven Anthony Shields, who is accused of crashing into the Queen of Peace Catholic Church and setting it on fire, was arrested Saturday morning after leading Marion County sheriff’s deputies on a high-speed chase.

Shields is no stranger to the Marion County legal system. In October 2019 he was arrested after a woman claimed he wanted to murder her. She told sheriff’s deputies that Shields had swung a crowbar at her twice before telling her to lie on the ground to she could hit her on the head and kill her. Shields admitted that he wanted to “kill her because she was a ‘stupid (expletive deleted),’” a report states, adding that he was charged with assault with intent to commit a felony.