Bahai News -- Associated Press - Man arrested in connection with fires at LA houses of worship

Man arrested in connection with fires at LA houses of worship

(05-09) 18:40 PDT LOS ANGELES (AP) -- >Undercover police officers arrested a 40-year-old man early Friday for investigation of arson in connection with five attacks on houses of worship in the San Fernando Valley.

The suspect, whose name was withheld, was taken into custody as he set a trash can on fire in Westwood, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell told a press conference at police headquarters.

McDonnell would not answer questions about motive. He said he was releasing as much information as he could to calm anxiety in the community but was constrained by the investigation.

Detectives needed to keep the man's identity secret until his picture could be shown to witnesses, McDonnell said, urging news organizations that already had the name to not reveal it.

The investigation turned up physical evidence linking the man to one or more of the fires, police said.

"We began watching that individual," McDonnell said. "Early this morning, about 1 a.m., this individual was observed by our undercover people engaging in an arson-related criminal act, setting a trash can on fire, in the area of Glendon Avenue and Kinross (Avenue) in the Westwood area."

The task force probing the fires included the police counterterrorism bureau because a crime against a house of worship is considered a hate crime and such offenses are investigated by those officers, McDonnell said.

The district attorney's office said its hate-crime and arson units were working with police and fire investigators and expected to have evidence presented to prosecutors early next week for a decision on filing charges. The office decline further comment, citing work that still needed to be done by investigators.

A series of five brazen, seemingly indiscriminate attacks have occurred on houses of worship since April 26. The targets represented a variety of faiths, with some of the acts occurring during daylight.

The arsons began at the First Presbyterian Church of Encino, located next to a fire station. The blaze gutted a church office and caused an estimated $20,000 in damage.

Two other fires occurred Monday. One was reported at the Bahai Community Center, where most of the congregation is Iranian. Nearly 12 hours later, a fire burned the roof of an Iranian synagogue

No injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

More than 150 investigators from local and federal law enforcement agencies were working the case.

A cinder block tossed through a window Tuesday night at a Jewish educational center was the fifth incident linked to the arsonist. It was reported by a witness who ran outside after the block was thrown.

The incident, which has been classified as vandalism, occurred at the Deet Torah Educational Center in Encino, just blocks away from the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue that was firebombed Wednesday morning.

©Copyright 2003, Associated Press

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