Bahai News -- The Psadena Star News - Suspect being questioned in church fires Article Published: Friday, May 09, 2003 - 1:46:41 PM PST

Suspect being questioned in church fires

By Staff and Wires Services

LOS ANGELES -- A suspect was questioned today about a recent series of four arson fires in Encino -- and a possible fifth attempted attack -- at three temples and a Presbyterian church, authorities said.

Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Mary Grady said the suspect had been taken into custody in Westwood Village, but she refused to provide further details.

Mayor James Hahn has scheduled a 5 p.m. news conference to discuss the latest developments.

The first firebombing occurred about 1 a.m. April 26 at the First Presbyterian Church of Encino on Balboa Boulevard.

The next two broke out Monday: one at 11 a.m. at a Baha'i community center on Genesta Avenue and another about 10 p.m. at a Ventura storefront synagogue attended by Iranian immigrants.

A fourth blaze occurred at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue on Ventura Boulevard on Wednesday evening. Video from a surveillance camera at a Wells Fargo bank across the street from the temple showed a man throwing a firebomb into the building.

The latest reported incident, which occurred about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, was foiled by a neighbor who chased a man who threw a cinder block through a window at the Da'at Torah Educational Center. The small Orthodox synagogue is tucked away in a Ventura Boulevard strip mall.

No one was hurt and no fire was started, but a witness said he confronted a "Middle Eastern" looking suspect, who threatened him before fleeing, then later found four half-gallon containers of lamp oil.

The witness told Rabbi Moshe Hafuta that two of the oil containers were on the roof of the building and the others were in some landscaping. The rabbi said the oil apparently was purchased at a Ralphs across the street from the Da'at Torah Educational Center.

Investigators said flammables also had been found at the other crime scenes.

The fires have caused mostly minor damage and no injuries, but considerable manpower has been committed to the investigation, including the city's House of Worship Task Force created in 1996.

It is made up of city firefighters and police officers, as well as federal law enforcement agents. About 100 fire investigators and 65 LAPD detectives are involved.

Also joining the effort were investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and the district attorney's hate crime and arson units.

The Los Angeles City Council posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in case. Arson investigators can be reached at (213) 485-6175 or (213) 485-6095.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor whose district includes Encino, plans to introduce a motion this afternoon, asking for an audit of the notification procedure between city fire and police departments.

Some LAPD officials expressed frustration that the fire department had not notified them about the crimes until Tuesday's fire at Valley Beth Shalom, the fourth in the series. Fire officials said however, they had notified police about the earlier fires.

A man was arrested about 4 a.m. Thursday on suspicion of trespassing at Cal State Northridge and was questioned about the spate of firebombings. He was later released, however, and police said he was not a suspect in the house of worship attacks.

To demonstrate their solidarity in the face of the attacks, Weiss and others attended an interfaith service Thursday night at Encino's St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catholic Church.

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

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