Juvenile Charged In Church Fire

| February 2, 2010

A 15-year-old Yankton male has been charged in connection with a fire that burned down a local church last April.

The boy, who was 14 at the time of the April 4 fire at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Yankton, was charged Jan. 14 with first-degree arson and third-degree burglary, according to a media release from the Yankton Police Department issued Monday.

Arson is a Class 2 felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and/or a fine of $50,000. Third-degree burglary is a Class 4 Felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine.

Acting Police Chief Jerry Hisek said the announcement of the charges filed against the juvenile was delayed while his department coordinated with the Yankton County State’s Attorney Office on the matter.

Because the suspect is a juvenile, law enforcement disclosed little beyond the fact that the teen had been charged. A representative of the state’s attorney office said he could not reveal whether the boy is in custody or whether he has made any court appearances.

Hisek would not say if the suspect had previous run-ins with law enforcement. Nor would he reveal how his officers believe the fire was started.

“Through the investigation, we had enough information to charge him,” Hisek said. “With an incident this large that affected so many people in the heart of our town, it’s nice to be able to bring the investigation to this next step and give people some closure. One of the concerns was, there was somebody running around burning churches.

“It has taken a while to conclude the investigation,” he added. “But it’s not like TV. You can’t get it all done in an hour.”

The investigation into the fire was conducted by the Yankton Police Department, the Yankton Fire Department, the South Dakota State Fire Marshal, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Yankton County State’s Attorney Office.

Officials at St. John’s were notified during the weekend that a suspect had been charged in connection with the fire.

“I was never really worried about whether they caught somebody or not, except for that individual’s sake,” the Rev. Dave Gunderson said. “It’s nice to know that, if this is the individual responsible for the fire and the court system works correctly, this person will not repeat the crime and hopefully be rehabilitated. This is such a young person. The hope would be that this will turn them around, and they can do something more constructive with their life. I’d want them to be a blessing to a community down the road.”

The damage done to St. John’s, which is located 1009 Jackson Street, has been placed at more than $2 million. Gunderson said that, despite the disruption to the congregation and the grief the incident caused, the spirit of the congregation lives on as strong as ever.

“We as a church always see the power of God’s love and forgiveness,” he said. “His promise to anybody who repents is that there is forgiveness. That would certainly be true for us as a church. We’re not here to seek revenge. That’s not our business. Our business is to share the gospel of Christ. Whoever did this to us, if they ever came and asked for our forgiveness, I think we’d be very willing to forgive.”

The congregation experienced first-hand the blessings of the community and the goodness that can stem from such an incident, Gunderson said. It is anticipated the new church will be ready for services by Easter, if not earlier.

“In many ways, it’s going to be a much more efficient building energy-wise,” Gunderson said of the facility under construction. “It’s also going to be better able to serve the congregation and the community.”

Gunderson said that law enforcement has been good about pursuing the case and commended them for their work.

“Getting to this point … shows that our law enforcement and the people investigating the fire did a great job,” he said.



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