Church arsonist doubts God will forgive him

| May 14, 2010

A man who torched two Wetaskiwin churches in what a judge described as a "totally senseless wanton act of destruction" was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison.

But he was offered hope by one of the ministers whose church was destroyed.

"We have not been abandoned and we don't want you, Peter Terence Jones, to feel abandoned," Wetaskiwin First United Church minister Ruth Lumax told the 24-year-old arsonist in her victim impact statement, which was read in court.

Jones set fire to the United Church early on Oct. 13, 2009, burning it to the ground.

The next day, he started another fire at St. John's Lutheran Church. Inspectors recently decided the building cannot be salvaged.

Jones pleaded guilty in March to two counts of break and enter to commit arson.

Provincial Court Judge William Andreassen on Thursday called the crimes "senseless" acts that appeared to have no motivation, other than Jones's desire for thrills.

He noted Jones's lengthy criminal record, which has included convictions for attempted arson and break and enter. The four-year sentence takes into account the eight months he has already spent in custody.

Lumax said her congregation wants to contact Jones through a restorative justice program in a bid to keep him out of trouble. She addressed Jones several times in court and said she would be willing to accompany him in a process of reconciliation.

"I was hoping he was hearing what I was saying, that we don't hold vengeance toward him," Lumax said outside court.

Jones was unemployed, living with his wife's family in Wetaskiwin, and stressed about money when he started to contemplate stealing something. He broke into the United Church through a basement window, but could find no valuables. He then started to burn papers on the church bulletin board, later claiming he was trying to cover evidence of his illegal entry.

About 4:45 a.m., a witness noticed smoke coming from the church and called emergency responders. The witness ran into Jones, who was riding his bicycle in the area. Jones asked the man if he had called 911 about the fire, Crown prosecutor Sheila Jonker told court.

The next morning, Jones broke into the Lutheran Church by breaking a corner of the front door. He again scoured for valuables, and pocketed a piece of art, a goblet and a chalice used for communion.

Then he stood in front of the church sanctuary and set fire to the cloth covering the lectern.

A firefighter responding to the fire spotted Jones riding his bicycle about four blocks away. He was wearing the same distinctive orange tuque he had been wearing the previous night, Jonker said.

RCMP officers tracked Jones down two months later in Ontario, where he had moved with his wife. He admitted to the theft and arson at the Lutheran Church. Police learned he was using the goblet and chalice as candy dishes. It wasn't until later that he admitted to setting the fire at the United Church.

Jones, a slight man with a long, blond ponytail, teared up several times while the events were detailed in court. He clutched a bright orange baseball cap and barely looked at his supporters in the courtroom. In a letter written while he was in custody, Jones said he didn't think God would forgive him.

"I've tried to ask for forgiveness, but I don't think that's an option," said the letter, which was read in court.

Jones falls into a category of arsonists described as "thrill seekers," said a psychologist who assessed him. Jones admitted to being fascinated by the glow of fires when he was younger and was previously implicated in a fire at his mother's condominium.

The judge said Jones is at high risk of reoffending.

"The first arson was reckless, if not intentional. The second arson was beyond reckless; it was done with the intention of burning the church down," he said.

Parishioners at the United Church have been worshipping in different locations since the fire, Lumax said. The arson has caused the community to come together in new ways.

The United Church is planning to rebuild on the same location and to be open by Christmas 2011. It is not known what will happen to the Lutheran Church.

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Category: Church Security