Bahai News -- Pasadena Star News - Arsonist hits again Article Published: Wednesday, May 07, 2003 - 8:10:38 PM PST

Arsonist hits again

Encino temple 4th religious site struck

By Jason Kandel, Staff Writer

ENCINO -- City and religious leaders on Wednesday decried a series of four firebombings at Encino religious buildings as "acts of terror and hatred."

In the aftermath of an early morning blaze Wednesday at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, authorities stepped up their investigation and tightened security at area religious facilities.

Los Angeles police Chief William Bratton, fire Chief William Bamattre, Councilman Jack Weiss and Mayor James Hahn joined Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom at a news conference to condemn the attacks. A Presbyterian church, a Bahai community center and two synagogues have been firebombed since April 26, possibly by a single arsonist.

"We have all of us been religiously violated," said Schulweis.

"We need each other -- Christians, Muslims, people of different faiths -- to see to it that our calling is, in fact, lived out. We have not come to this world to destroy and to hurt, but to build and to repair."

Hahn harshly condemned the attacks and called for help in catching whoever is responsible.

"These senseless acts are more than just crimes," Hahn said. "They go against everything Los Angeles stands for. This is something we can't tolerate here in Los Angeles."

The 6:30 a.m. fire damaged the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd. Earlier fires occurred Monday night at The Iranian Synagogue on Ventura Boulevard, Monday morning at a Baha'i community center on Ganesta Avenue, and April 26 at a Presbyterian church on Balboa Boulevard.

No injuries have been reported in any of the fires, which caused damages of $10,000 to $20,000 at each location.

The city posted a $25,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the arsonist. The Los Angeles Police Department also has beefed up its patrols around more than 100 religious buildings in the San Fernando Valley.

In addition, the city has called on the House of Worship Task Force -- composed of 100 local and federal officers -- to investigate the fires.

An interfaith service addressing the arson spree will be held at 8 p.m. today at St. Cyril's Catholic Church, 15520 Ventura Blvd.

Authorities say they believe the suspect is familiar with the Encino area, and might live there.

"It looks like we've got a local working the area," said Fire Department Battalion Chief Bob Franco. "It's someone who knows the area."

The fire Wednesday -- the 55th anniversary of Israeli independence -- was sparked by a small incendiary device tossed through a window of Valley Beth Shalom. An automatic sprinkler system helped douse the flames, which came dangerously close to the Torah scrolls and other religious books.

"I stood in the sanctuary of the temple this morning and saw a Molotov cocktail about 10 feet away from the Torah scrolls," said Councilman Weiss. "It's pretty horrifying. It's very disturbing."

He asked commuters or others who might have driven by the Ventura Boulevard temple to come forward.

"There have got to be people out there who saw something suspicious right around here."

Officials also said a videotape from a Wells Fargo bank surveillance camera across the street from the temple might help identify the culprit.

Battalion Chief Dennis Waters, who heads the task force, said authorities have been working around the clock to solve the cases, but urged the public to call in tips.

"We're checking on leads. We need more leads. We feel good that if this guy keeps up, we'll get him."

Bratton has assigned 65 detectives from the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism Bureau to assist in the investigations.

"We're asking people to be very mindful in the next several days until we apprehend the person or persons responsible for these acts to be particularly watchful of our houses of worship, and to report any suspicious activity immediately," he said.

"This is a top priority for this city, for the Police Department and the Fire Department."

Deputy police Chief Ronald Bergmann, the Valley Bureau's commander, was confident a suspect would be caught soon.

He said someone was seen throwing either a rock or a brick at a Jewish school six blocks away from Valley Beth Shalom in recent days, but fled when he was spotted by a passer-by.

The San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, comprising hundreds of individuals from various faiths, condemned the attacks.

"The damage done to any house of worship is damage done to all the churches and temples of worship," said Barry Smedberg, the Interfaith Council's executive director. Anyone with information about the incidents can call the Fire Department at (213) 485-6175 or (213) 485-6095.

©Copyright 2003, Pasadena Star News (CA, USA)

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