Man charged in Northwest Side church arson

| February 1, 2010

CHICAGO – A 61-year-old parishioner who church officials said had been acting strangely was charged this morning with setting the Sunday night fire that heavily damaged Edgebook Lutheran Church on the Northwest Side.

Charged with felony arson was James Deichman, of the 6200 block of North Cicero Avenue.

Deichman, a retired postal worker, was found by police inside the church at 5252 W. Devon Ave. and admitted setting the fire, police sources said. He was arrested on the scene and is scheduled to appear in bond court later today.

His motive was not known. Police said he first set fire to garbage cans at the rear of the church, then broke a basement window to enter the church and started a fire at one of the entrances by igniting a cardboard box full of cushions.

The 2½-story, 66-year-old brick church was "fully engulfed" with smoke and fire shooting out at the rear when firefighters arrived, according to Quention Curtis, a Fire Department spokesman.

Firefighters were called to the church at 9:35 p.m. Sunday and the blaze was put out shortly before midnight. No one was hurt. More than 100 firefighters responded to the three-alarm blaze.

Before charges were filed, police described the suspect as "mentally unstable." Officials said church leaders told police the man had been "acting strange" lately.

Gregory Allen and his stepmother, Hazel Clementz, said they were watching the Grammy Awards when Allen said he saw "the flickering of a fire" through their living room window. Clementz then left the house and saw several of the church's trash cans on fire, as well as a neighbor's trash can.

Once Clementz spoke with a 9-1-1 dispatcher, she and another neighbor went together to the church and looked through a glass door.

"It looked smoky in the stairway and there was a fire extinguisher [that] came down the stairs. Like, where did that come from? It doesn't just fall from the wall," Clementz said, adding that she saw flames inside the church, not long after that.

John Holm, the interim pastor at the church, could not offer any reason why anyone would want to burn down the church.

"We have not had any trouble or controversies in the church or with any individuals," he said. "In fact, it's been a good year. We've done a lot of good ministry."

Allen described the Deichman as "an old guy" who he saw "bobbing back and forth in the cop car."

"And he was shouting and screaming." Allen added, "You can just tell he was really upset."

Several blocks of Devon Avenue — between Central and Navajo avenues — were cordoned off with several dozen firetrucks and other emergency vehicles parked along the stretch.

The flames shot from the roof on the Hiawatha Avenue side of the church, causing plumes of smoke to descend on a crowd of some 50 onlookers. These passersby tried to take pictures of the flames with their cell phone cameras, ignoring the soot and smoke flying in the air around them.

The firefighters, meanwhile, attacked the flames on overhead ladders with hoses, spraying water through the roof. Pools of water flooded Hiawatha and Nokomis avenues.

Emily Flatley, who was baptized at the church, got married at Edgebrook Lutheran in November. She said she started crying on her way there to see the fire after her sister called her to tell her about it.

"As I was coming over I started crying [and] saying, 'I don't want to see it burn. I don't want to see it,'" Flatley said. "But I knew that not seeing it would've been worse than seeing it. I had to know what was going on…especially since we just got the wedding pictures."

Beverley Compton, a 40-year parishioner, was also called to the scene by another church member. "You know, my first thought is when the phone rings at 25 to 11, somebody's died," said Compton, who also lives in the Edgebrook area.

Compton, who helps the church with various functions, said there were a few events that took place at the church during the day, but said no one usually would have been inside when the fire started.

Rebecca Hennessy, who lives near the church, heard a bunch of sirens from her home and went over to the church immediately to check out all the commotion. She said she's been a parishioner at the church for 15 years.

She said her three daughters, who were all baptized there, stood up at a wedding there shortly after last Thanksgiving.

"I know it's just a building. But the sanctuary and the stained-glass, and the history of it all is just beautiful," Hennessy said. "My heart is just broken."

Joanne Friz, a parishioner at the church for nearly 25 years, was also at the scene.

She described the sanctuary ceiling as "the inside of a ship turned upside down" with "beautiful wood, beautiful hand-stenciling."

"I hope and pray that the stained-glass windows are still intact," Friz said.

A number of the parishioners "live distances away and still return here to worship," she said.

One of those parishioners, Joan Liss, of Glenview, has been going to the church since the 1960s.

"I felt sick," said Liss, describing how she felt when first learning of the fire. "(I) never thought of changing churches."

Her friend, Lotty Brauchli, who lives in the Edgebrook area, has been attending the church just as long as Liss.

"We'll stick together like we always did," Brauchli said.,0,1203054,full.story

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Category: Church Security