St Louis police continue search for arson suspect after seventh church targeted
Arsonist lights suspicious fire (Shutterstock)

Law enforcement officials are still investigating a spate of “very disturbing” church fires in north St Louis, as a seventh church was targeted early on Thursday.

The seventh church, Shrine of St Joseph, was set afire around 1.35am at the exterior door of the rectory, police said. The church was unoccupied at the time and no injuries were reported.

St Louis fire chief Dennis Jenkerson said the incident was “very similar” to the other six church fires, which have taken place over the last two weeks.

“It didn’t take much to put [the St Joseph fire] out, but it’s very disturbing,” Jenkerson told reporters early on Thursday.

While the majority of the churches affected by the recent rash of alleged arsons are predominantly black, the St Joseph congregation is primarily white, according to a former head of the church’s board, Ralph Kannady. The churches are within a few miles of each other, near Ferguson, Missouri.

“I think it stinks,” Kannady told the St Louis Post Dispatch. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to set fire to a church door. This world is full of nuts.”

The first six fires have been classified as arsons, although no suspects have been identified.

Michele Brown, office manager and long-time parishioner of St Augustine Catholic Church, struck by a fire on 14 October, said the initial reaction of the congregation was stunned surprise.

“We were sort of shocked,” she said. “And this was compounded by the fact that a number of churches in the area have been affected.”

Brown called the fact that the majority African American churches are clustered in an area near Ferguson “a disturbing pattern”.

“Most of us believe this is someone sick,” she said. “We’ve prayed for them. We pray that they’ll stop. We also prayed that they’ll get some help.”

St Louis police chief Sam Dotson told reporters Wednesday that it is “frustrating” that a suspect hasn’t been found yet, “even though we’re two weeks into this investigation”.

“We really don’t have any solid information above motive,” Dotson said. “We don’t have any real solid information about suspects.”

Detectives from both the St Louis city and county police departments have been involved in the case. Dennis Jenkerson, St Louis fire chief, said his department began to canvas the city Tuesday, passing out handbills to seek tips from residents.

The six fires in St Louis city and county were “relatively small in nature”, Jenkerson said, but patrols have nonetheless been ramped up. The fire department’s response protocol has been changed “so every fire … is given a first-alarm response”, he said.

Brown said the damage at St Augustine’s could have been much worse, as the church’s solid wood doors and brass coverings prevented the flames from doing more damage inside the church.

Though the church has insurance, it carries a $2,500 deductible – money that’s not easy to come by for this small church of just 250 people.

“The fire was a major concern,” Brown said. “We didn’t know if we could afford repair and replacement.”

Repercussions from the fire could be felt not only in the church, but also in the community it serves. Brown said the church supports community outreach, utility assistance, meal assistance and Thanksgiving and Christmas food and toy drives.

The churches affected by the fires have been reaching out to each other, according to Brown, who said all six have been invited to a conference with St Louis city hall leaders 26 October.

In the wake of the fire, Brown said her church may be forced to look harder at security issues in the future.

Asked what she’d say to the person responsible for the fires, Brown answered:“I’d say, ‘Why?’ This could have been much worse.”

Nevertheless, Brown said that church members will continue to pray for the perpetrator.

The reward for any tips that lead to an arrest or conviction nearly doubled to $9,000 Wednesday. Jenkerson said that a $5,000 reward from the St Louis fire department and Missouri division of fire safety had been added to the $2,000 rewards offered each by the St Louis Regional CrimeStoppers and the federal bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives.

Police said the fires began at the front door of each church, besides the first incident on 8 October, when the origin was near the exterior. None were occupied at the time of the incidents. Five of the six churches are predominantly black; one is racially mixed.

Dotson declined to comment on whether the arsons were related to the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed last year by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury later declined to bring charges against Wilson.

“Until we have a suspect, we won’t know … I don’t want to speculate until we know for sure,” Dotson said.

The investigation remains ongoing and is being jointly conducted by the St. Louis Regional Bomb Unit and the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives.

Dotson pleaded for anyone with information on the incidents to contact law enforcement officials.

“Even if it’s trivial … every little bit of information helps us right now,” he said. © Guardian News and Media 2015