Serial arsonist targets churches

| May 13, 2010

A serial arsonist is targeting northwest-side churches, Pima County Sheriff's Department investigators say.

Four church fires since April 9 are all related, and one or more people working together are likely responsible, said Capt. Chris Nanos, head of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division.

"What we're seeing at the scenes leads us to believe it's the same person," said Nanos, who declined to specify any similarities. "We will throw whatever resources we can at this. There are certain acts that we cannot and will not tolerate, one of which is hate crimes."

The fires are being labeled hate crimes because they involved churches, Nanos said. His department has been in contact with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because a hate crime is a federal offense.

The most recent fire occurred Monday night at the Catalina Lutheran Church, in Catalina. The church is about 15 miles north of where the first three fires – all in April – occurred, but investigators are confident that all four fires are connected, Nanos said.

The fact that they aren't happening in just one area is even more concerning, he said.

"They're operating at a pace that's alarming to us," Nanos said.

Investigators have described damage from the fires as ranging from minimal to serious. The most severely affected was the Northwest Community Friends Church, which will need to replace roughly two-thirds of its 7,500-square-foot facility because of smoke and fire damage.

"This will take up to six months to fix," said Pastor Dayton Burley, whose congregation has met outdoors since the April 30 fire.

No connection has been made between the churches' denominations, all of which are different variations of Protestant faith, Nanos said.

Whoever is setting the fires is going after anything they think is a church, Burley said.

"This is somebody that has no concept of what a church is really all about," Burley said. "We don't feel targeted."

Nanos said he is hoping the public might know something to help catch those responsible.

"We have pieces to this puzzle, and we're hoping the community can give us another piece," Nanos said.

Keith Huffman, pastor of the Flowing Wells Baptist Church, which was damaged by fire on April 9, said everyone is trying to be vigilant to prevent another fire.

"Our deacons and ushers are just trying to be aware of who's coming in," he said. "We're keeping an eye out."

Anyone with information is asked to call 88-CRIME.

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Category: Church Security