Bahai News -- Los Angles Daily News - Suspect arrested in arson spree at houses of worship Article Published: Friday, May 09, 2003 - 10:41:50 PM PST

Suspect arrested in arson spree at houses of worship

By Jason Kandel and Lisa Mascaro
Staff Writers

Undercover detectives arrested a 40-year-old Los Angeles man on suspicion of arson Friday in connection with the firebombing of a series of Encino houses of worship.

The suspect in the attacks on Jewish, Protestant and Bahai institutions was arrested in Westwood about 1 a.m. when police said they saw him light a trash can on fire near the corner of Kinross and Glendon avenues. The investigation turned up physical evidence linking the man to one or more of the Encino fires, and there could be accomplices, police said.

"This is a hate crime and we took it very, very seriously," said Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. "The message is clear - when crimes of this nature are committed, we're going to join the collective ranks of the law enforcement community and use all appropriate measures to bring those responsible to justice."

The suspect was booked into the Van Nuys Jail, where he was held on suspicion of felony arson, but McDonnell declined to identify him and would not discuss a motive, saying he was "constrained by the investigation."

Detectives need to keep the man's identity under wraps to give witnesses a chance to identify him uninfluenced, and asked news organizations that already had the name to not reveal it.

"We're not going to discount the fact that potentially there are others involved," McDonnell said. "But I think people can feel safer in their homes knowing we have the suspect in custody."

Mayor James Hahn commended the House of Worship Task Force, comprising the LAPD, federal agents and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

"Everybody worked so hard," he said. "We are very pleased the police have worked so quickly to make sure these crimes will stop."

Charges are expected to be presented to the District Attorney's Office for consideration Monday.

Officials said they will seek federal hate crimes charges and the District Attorney's and U.S. Attorney's offices are working together on the case.

Councilman Jack Weiss, in whose district the fires occurred and the arrest was made, expressed his gratitude for the speedy arrest by the massive task force assigned to the case.

"We are breathing a tentative sigh of relief," he said. "The enforcement community has been working diligently over the past several days to make the tentative break in the case."

He called the break a victory for the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism Bureau, "which has worked so hard to combat hate crimes and terror in this city."

Valley religious leaders were cautiously relieved, hopeful it would be the end of the incidents and thankful for law enforcement's efforts.

"I think that for certainly our members - and I would expect for the other houses of worship involved - it would be a sense of relief. Very much," said the Rev. Malcolm Laing, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Encino, where the first incident occurred April 26.

Laing said he was pleased that law enforcement worked so quickly to apprehend a suspect, but said there will be uneasiness until the case is fully resolved.

"Until things actually do for sure calm down, I think there will be in the back of everybody's mind: Is this the person tied to everything or is there someone else out there?"

He said his church would likely discuss the issue at its Sunday service, adding that members had started getting over the attack until the others occurred, renewing the "feelings of anger and fear and uncertainty.

"It was a repeated experience for our people. ... It was like it happened to us."

The most recent arson attack occurred Wednesday when 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 Bahai community center on Ganesta Avenue, and April 26 at a Presbyterian church on Balboa Boulevard.

Authorities have also linked a vandalism attack, in which someone threw a cinder block through a window at D'Torah Jewish Educational Center in Encino, to the suspect.

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

The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance issued a statement applauding the "tremendous efforts" of law enforcement.

"We are pleased and relieved that law enforcement appears to have arrested an alleged perpetrator of these heinous crimes," President Ken Warner said. "We will leave it to our legal system to pursue justice in this case. In the meantime, we will focus our efforts on the positive and work to build on the good will between people of all faiths that has come out of these incidents."

At St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino, which hosted an interfaith gathering earlier this week in solidarity against the attacks, there was hope that the arrest was the end of the hate-crime spree.

"I hope that he is the person. We're all concerned for all the churches," said Monsignor Carl Bell. "It's a real heartache to have those places desecrated. It's like your home being broken into - you're trying to pray for peace, the troops."

©Copyright 2003, Los Angles Daily News (CA, USA)

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