String Of Fires Hit Many Churches

| March 20, 2010

Nearly 20 years ago, Winter Haven parishioners – like many across the state – were on the alert.

In communities across Florida, churches were burning. Catholic, Protestant – it didn't seem to matter. All Christian houses of worship seemed to be in the crosshairs.

"The list of properties includes Baptist, Episcopal and Christian Scientist churches in Gainesville; Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Winter Haven; a Church of God and a Church of Religious Science in Merritt Island," The Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote in a November 1991 editorial. "Some towns suffered three fires on three sequential days. Two fires occurred the same day as far distant as Gainesville and Zolfo Springs – about a three-hour drive apart.

"These are the kinds of facts over which arson investigators tear their hair," the editorial stated.

It was a case that has some similarities to a string of church fires in Texas earlier this year – two young men were recently arrested in connection with 10 suspected arsons over two months in East Texas.

In Florida, however, it took months – and several fires – for investigators to find the unstable drifter they deemed responsible for setting at least 17 fires throughout the state.

In the meantime, Florida's churches closed their doors. By the end, some even posted overnight guards.

The first of the Winter Haven fires struck in January 1991 when two downtown churches were set alight within an hour of each other.

Then the arson string arrived.

Over five days – from Feb. 3 to Feb. 7, 1991 – six churches were touched by fire: the Inman Park Baptist Church, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Abiding Saviour Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church, Beymer Memorial United Methodist Church and the First Church of the Nazarene.

"Pastors are more alert to strangers … and many have grudgingly yielded to the impulse to lock their churches," The New York Times reported soon after the Winter Haven fires.

Months later, in November 1991, a second set of fires broke out in Winter Haven. This time Cypress Cathedral and First Church of Christ, Scientist, were damaged.

Fortunately none of the damages were extreme and no one was injured in Winter Haven. Other communities weren't so lucky.

Ocala, for instance, saw its historic First Baptist Church burned to the ground. Gainesville lost most of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church – only a few blackened walls and the bell tower remained.

The state mobilized a task force to investigate the fires. A federal arson specialist was brought in to create a psychological profile in hopes a suspect could be caught. Still, officials remained in the dark.

"It's scary, and the scariest part of all is that we just don't know why this is happening," the Rev. Linda Dickerson, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ocala, told The New York Times in November 1991.

And then the fires stopped.

A Tennessee drifter named Patrick Lee Frank was arrested in Ocala on unrelated charges of trespassing and loitering. Based on witness accounts and photo lineups, the state's Church Arson Task Force determined Frank was responsible for 17 church fires throughout Florida. He was indicted in February 1992, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity a year later.

"A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, he believed churches were trying to control him and burned the buildings to fight back," The Gainesville Sun reported earlier this year.

Frank remained institutionalized for about fifteen years in connection with the fires. He was apparently released in 2008, The Sun reported.

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Category: Church Security