An arrest warrant was issued Monday for Tony Spell, the Louisiana pastor who has made headlines for defying state orders against large gatherings, after allegedly nearly hitting a protester with his church bus. Police in the city of Central, near Baton Rouge, said Spell will be charged with aggravated assault for backing his bus too close to a protester in a confrontation caught on video.
"At first I thought he [Spell] was just turning around his bus and was going to pull away, but he just kept coming in reverse," Trey Bennett, the protestor, told WAFB, the outlet that obtained the video footage. "I could see him [Spell] driving the bus. He was honking his horn loudly at me and making gestures suggesting he was yelling while he was driving. It didn't seem real until it was physically in my face with a bus."
The incident happened Sunday on the side of the road in front of Spell's Life Tabernacle Church. Spell is expected to turn himself in to be booked on Tuesday morning, Central police chief Roger Corcoran told NBC News on Monday night. Corcoran said local authorities are trying to enforce the law and insisted Spell is not being denied his freedom to practice religion. "They're trying to make a mockery of this, like he's some kind of victim," the chief said. "No one, not one person, is trying to stop him from preaching the word."
There is also a second warrant out for the arrest of the person driving a white truck that appears to swerve off the road in a separate attempt to hit a protester on the side of the road near the church, WAFB reports. "And he [man in the white truck] was going very fast. He just pulled over at me and turned into the church. That was much faster than what Tony Spell was doing when he drove the bus at me," Bennett said.
Spell acknowledged to WAFB in a telephone interview Monday that he was driving the bus and simply wanted to get out and confront the protester. He said his wife, who was also on the bus, talked him out of it. "That man has been in front of my church driveway for three weeks now," Spell said. "He shoots people obscene finger gestures and shouts vulgarities."
But Bennett denies ever using profanity of obscene gestures, insisting he has been peacefully protesting since Easter Sunday. "I haven't done anything of the sort. I just stand there with a sign. I don't say anything to anybody," he said.
Since the pandemic has caused widespread shutdowns in recent weeks, Spell has openly defied bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, an order Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced on March 16 to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, Spell was arrested and given misdemeanor charges when more than 1,200 congregants attended his church on Palm Sunday. "We derive our inalienable rights from God, not any government," he told CBS News at the time, adding that attendees observed 6 feet of distancing at services, but did not wear face masks.
Spell's attorney, Joseph Long, said his client would be vindicated. "A fair viewing of the video will prove that Spell did not attempt to run over the protester, and the protester did not feel threatened, as he never moved when the bus came near," Long said. Another attorney who had worked for the pastor, Jeff Wittenbrink, was reported to have been hospitalized last week for COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus.