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Worship houses in Washington state hit by arson, gunfire

Five attacks — including four arson fires — at Jehovah’s Witnesses worship houses in Washington state appear to be hate crimes, a county sheriff says.

“How frustrating it is that people who find a solemn place to worship, and now it’s being destroyed,” Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said after the most recent fire-bombing on Dec. 7 destroyed one of the faith’s “kingdom halls” in Lacey, Washington.

“It’s not just this church that’s been destroyed. But now, what’re we doing about it?” Sheriff Snaza said, the Tacoma News Tribune reported.

The sheriff calls the series of attacks hate crimes. The serial arsons, which began in March, are now being investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Darek Pleasants, the special agent in charge of the ATF’s Seattle Field Division, is appealing to the public for help identifying the suspect.

“It is inevitable that innocent people will be injured or killed if these incidents go unchecked,” Pleasants said. “We take events at houses of worship very seriously and are appealing to those who live in and around Thurston and the surrounding counties to partner with us in protecting their communities in this investigation.”

“It is only a matter of time before one of these incidents escalates into an injury or fatality in our community,” the ATF chief said at a news conference.

While the ATF doesn’t officially label such incidents as “hate crimes,” the federal agency “believes that these incidents were meant to send a message,” the agency said Wednesday.

“We believe that the suspect or suspects has or have a grievance related to the Jehovah’s Witness community, or about another issue they think is important,” the agency statement said.

Before these fires, the person or persons involved likely shared these strong feelings with others through comments and conversation, the agency said after having a behavioral analyst develop a profile of a possible suspect.

Meanwhile this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called the attacks “abhorrent,” and tweeted a photo of the most recent fire in Lacey.

“The freedom to worship is a right that should be protected for every person in our country,” the governor said. “Our thoughts are with the members of our community affected by this abhorrent act.”

Dan Woollett, one of the ministers who helped build the Lacey facility in 1976, told KING-TV that the deliberate destruction of the worship hall is “devastating for the whole congregation.”

“It does make you sad, but it’s just a building,” Woollett said. “No matter who we are, no matter what our religious persuasion is, we have to cope with the problems we face.”

A reward totaling $36,000 has been posted, but no one has been arrested in the series of attacks, quite possibly carried out by the same serial arsonist, authorities say.

They are attempting to identify and locate a man seen in grainy surveillance video, described only as wearing a dark coat, jeans and a Seattle Seahawks cap. The image was recorded May 29 while the possible suspect was buying fire logs at the Fred Meyer in Tumwater.

All the attacks have occurred at “Kingdom Halls” — places of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses — in Thurston County in western Washington.

They began March 19 when an arsonist started separate fires at the Kingdom Hall in Tumwater, Washington, and a second at a church facility on Cain Road in nearby Olympia. Damage in both of those arson attempts was minor, authorities said.

On May 15, someone fired about three dozen .223 caliber rounds — like those used in AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles — into walls at a Kingdom Hall in Yelm, Washington, causing more than $10,000 in damage, said ATF spokesman Jason Chudy.

Deputies who responded were unable to locate a suspect but found bullet holes in the church and recovered shell casings and a Monster energy drink, the Tacoma newspaper reported.

On July 3, an arsonist started a fire that destroyed the Olympia Kingdom Hall, the same building that was damaged in the March 19 attempted arson.

Arson-caused fires at places of worship are not an uncommon hate crime.

In 2015, a string of nighttime fires damaged or destroyed at least six predominantly black churches in four Southern states in one week. A suspect in that string of arsons ultimately was arrested.

In 1996, Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, now an adjunct to the newer 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The Arson Prevention Act makes it a federal crime to intentionally deface, damage or destroy religious real property because of the religious nature of the property or because of the race, color or ethnic characteristics of the people associated with the property.

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