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Arson prevention at houses of worship

Each year for Arson Awareness Week (AAW), the U.S. Fire Administration gathers and shares information to raise awareness of arson or youth firesetting and provide individuals with strategies to combat these problems in their community.
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This year’s National Arson Awareness Week theme is “Arson Prevention at Houses of Worship.”

More about this year’s theme +-

This year’s materials:
Help community leaders increase awareness about how to prevent arson at houses of worship.
Spotlight recent arson fires at houses of worship in United States.

The burning of a house of worship is a stressful event; it not only devastates the affected congregation, but wounds the entire community. Whether the motivation behind the arson is hate or reckless vandalism, a congregation views it as an attack on their beliefs and values.

Arson robs congregations of their valuable assets, lives and property. Arson destroys more than the buildings used as houses of worship; it can devastate a community, resulting in the decline of the neighborhood through increased insurance premiums, loss of business revenue, and a decrease in property values.

Houses of worship are particularly vulnerable to fire damage because they’re often unoccupied for long periods of time, and in many cases, in rural areas. Rural properties will generally sustain more severe damage – even with an accidental fire – since discovery and response time may be delayed.

Arson fires in houses of worship 1996-2015

About half of reported fire incidents were caused by arson

DateUndetermined cause/otherAccidental firesArson/bombings


Average number of arson fires per year at houses of worship

source: ATF Bomb Arson Tracking System (2000-2015)

Does your arson prevention program address these three factors?

1. External security

  • Illuminate exterior and entrances – Arsonists, like burglars, fear light.
  • Clear things like shrubbery that block the view of the building.
  • Clean up – Remove anything that could fuel a fire for an arsonist.

2. Internal security

  • Install smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system.
  • Keep doors and windows locked.
  • Clean up – Remove anything that could fuel a fire for an arsonist.

3. Community awareness

Arson prevention activities for houses of worship

It’s impossible to prevent all arson crimes; that’s why creating an environment that reduces the chance your worship center is targeted, and minimizes the risk of damage and injury, is so important.

Get your congregation involved. Plan a #SafetyDay to learn about fire safety and crime prevention.

Congregation Fire Safety Day

House of Worship Fire Safety Day

Crime Prevention Day

Clean-Up Day

Fire safety at your worship center

Watch this video from Church Mutual to learn how you can help prevent arson, electrical, and other fires at your worship center.


Masjid Ibrahim Mosque in Coachella, California – December 2015

Masjid Ibrahim Mosque

The fire loss to the Masjid Ibrahim Mosque, also known as the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley, was estimated at $150,000.

Around noon, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, Carl James Dial brazenly walked down Avenue 49 in Coachella, California, carrying a red, plastic can filled with gasoline. It was afternoon prayer time at the nearby Masjid Ibrahim Mosque. The two seemingly unrelated events collided as Dial walked through the doorway of the Mosque into the entrance area and quickly poured and ignited the gasoline, setting the lobby area ablaze. The whoosh of the flames were mistaken for an explosion from a Molotov cocktail incendiary device.

Cal Fire received the alarm call at 12:09 p.m. and extinguished the flames in about 30 minutes.

As Dial fled the scene erratically, an exceptionally attentive off-duty deputy sheriff took note of the license tag number on Dial’s truck. The deputy’s alert act proved invaluable, as Dial was arrested later that evening at 9 p.m. by Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in Dial’s hometown of Palm Desert. He was arrested on several felony charges, including arson, malicious burning, burglary, and the commission of a hate crime.

The fire loss to the Masjid Ibrahim Mosque, also known as the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley, was estimated at $150,000. The entrance and lobby areas where members perform their ablutions prior to prayer sustained substantial fire and smoke damage, while the musallah, the portion of the mosque where members pray, received smoke damage.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in partnership with Cal Fire, conducted the origin-and-cause investigation, while the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department investigated, tracked and arrested Dial.

On Jan. 28, 2016, Dial pled guilty to arson and sentence-enhancing allegations of perpetrating a hate crime and committing arson using an accelerant. On Feb. 29, 2016, Dial was formally sentenced to six years in California State Prison.

Three Church Arsons in Felton, Delaware – December 2014

Healing Hands Christian Church

The Healing Hands Christian Church was a complete loss ($75,000), the other two churches, Manship Chapel ($1,000) and Laws Mennonite Church ($10,000), suffered much less damage and were extinguished quickly.

Two local men, Alex Harrington Jr. and Joseph Skochelak, went on an arson binge fueled by alcohol in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in rural Delaware.

The fiery rampage began at 1:47 a.m. by breaking into the Healing Hands Christian Church in Felton, Delaware. Motivated by greed and a need for money, they decided to commit a few burglaries. The pair torched the church, and despite efforts of the Felton Volunteer and Frederica Volunteer Fire Companies, the church was completely destroyed. While still fighting the fire at the Healing Hands Christian Church, firefighters received word at 2:05 a.m. of another fire at Manship Chapel, just four miles away. The two men ended the arson spree by setting a third fire at the Laws Mennonite Church in nearby Frederica, with the 911 call received at 5:21 a.m.

Whilst the Healing Hands Christian Church was a complete loss ($75,000), the other two churches, Manship Chapel ($1,000) and Laws Mennonite Church ($10,000), suffered much less damage and were extinguished quickly. The close-knit Kent County community was still devastated. No sprinkler/fire suppression systems were present at any of the churches. Manship Chapel was equipped with a fire alarm system that was activated by smoke detectors inside the building, and then it notified 911 emergency services. The fire at Laws Mennonite Church was called into 911 by a passer-by who observed smoke coming from the eaves of the building.

The fires were investigated by the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, with assistance from the FBI. The arson fires were all set with an open flame (lighter or matches) to flammable/combustible materials, with the Manship Chapel having two separate areas of origin. The two men were known by local law enforcement as logical suspects, but showing that they set the fires wouldn’t be easy – proving arson never is.

The big break in the case occurred when fire investigators found a discarded whiskey bottle at the Manship Chapel scene. Working with local merchants, they were able to find where the whiskey bottle was sold, and who had purchased it. The suspects had used a credit card to pay for the item, and the owner of the liquor store was able to positively identify Harrington as the purchaser. Additionally, DNA evidence confirmed the suspects’ presence at one crime scene.

Once arrested, both Harrington, 26, and Skochelak, 25, confessed to the break-ins but denied setting the fires, blaming each other for that crime. On April 23, 2015, the duo pled guilty to a trio of second degree arson counts, third degree burglary, and second degree conspiracy. On June 25, in Kent County Superior Court, they were sentenced to more than eight years in prison, but the sentences were reduced to 10 months.

Gospel Way Baptist Church in Dawsonville, Georgia – December 2014

Gospel Way Baptist Church

The fire was set at window on the rear of the church building with lighter fluid and presumably a lighter. The fire caused damage to the basement along with the flooring of the church.

On Monday, Dec. 22, 2014, at 11 p.m., Gary Lee Croy, 40, broke into the Gospel Way Baptist Church on Harmony Church Road in Dawsonville, Georgia. The motive was retribution for a perceived wrongdoing of some sort on the part of his ex-girlfriend and the church as a whole.

Croy, from Pendergrass, Georgia, set the fire at the rear of the church building with lighter fluid and presumably a lighter. The area of origin was a window on the bottom floor. The fire caused damage to the basement, which served as a thrift store, along with the flooring of the church.

The break in the case came when a local woman, Croy’s ex-girlfriend who was a relative of a church member/leader, responded to an appeal for help in solving the case from the Georgia Arson Control. She provided law enforcement with enough leads to identify Croy as a suspect, and once the case was closed, she received a $6,000 reward for her assistance. He was arrested (Feb. 11, 2015) and later convicted on one count of arson. It took over a year to adjudicate the case. Croy was sentenced to two years in prison and 20 years of probation.

The arson investigation was a joint effort between the Dawson County Emergency Services; Dawson County Fire Department (which was the local responding fire agency); along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Georgia’s Office of the State Fire Marshal.

Two Church Leaders Convicted in an Arson for Profit at a Kansas Church

Carva White, the music director at Sunflower Missionary Baptist Church in Leavenworth, Kansas, was forced to face the music after launching a plan to burn down his house of worship for an insurance payout. White recruited the head pastor to help him torch the building, con insurers into paying for repairs, then try to obtain bribes from contractors who would submit inflated bills for rebuilding the burned-out church.

White tried twice before he finished off the Sunflower church. His first blaze caused only $20,000 to $30,000 in damage. That wouldn’t have allowed him to extract enough bribe money from contractors. So, he told head pastor Marvin Clay that he would break out his matches one more time. Clay had second thoughts, but White convinced him they were in too deep to back out.

The next night was Halloween, and White struck again with a blaze that caused far more damage. Pastor Clay made a fraudulent claim to the Church Mutual Insurance Company which paid out $103,236. Federal investigators began nosing around and questioned Clay. Clay told investigators he couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing to his house of worship. But the fire had started in several places, and the evidentiary trail led back to White and Clay.

White received 12 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Clay was also convicted and awaits sentencing.

Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church in Brewster, Massachusetts – November 2012

Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church

The 12,800 square-foot church was burned to its foundation with damages estimated at more than $2 million.

Concerned parents of a troubled 29-year-old contacted the local police department stating they were worried about their son who had been drinking beer and left the house in the early hours (2:30 a.m.) of Friday, Nov. 30, 2012.

Regrettably, their fears were well-founded as their son, Adam Finnegan, equipped with gasoline and matches, set fire to the Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church located at 3580 Main Street in Brewster, Massachusetts. The lightweight, wood-constructed church burned quickly.

The Brewster Fire Department received the alarm call at 2:58 a.m., and upon their arrival, more than a quarter of the building was already engulfed in flames. The initial attack rapidly turned defensive. Several local departments provided mutual aid, but the 12,800 square-foot church was burned to its foundation with damages estimated at more than $2 million.

The incident was investigated by the Brewster Fire and Police Departments; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Massachusetts’ State Fire Marshal’s Fire and Explosion Investigation Section, including their accelerant detection canine (ADC), Damian.

With a suspect in mind, investigators were able to build a strong case, tying the purchase of gasoline to the location of gasoline, along with matches, in Finnegan’s vehicle. Damian, the ADC, alerted to an ignitable liquid on the walk and entrance to the church, as well as on the passenger side of Finnegan’s gray Saturn automobile.

According to his parents, Finnegan had a history of mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, along with fire setting.

On Feb. 12, 2014, Finnegan was convicted after a three-day jury trial in Barnstable, Massachusetts, located 14 miles southwest of Brewster. According to the Cape and Islands’ District Attorney’s Office, Finnegan was convicted of burning, or aiding in the burning, of a meeting house, as well as damages over $5,000 to a church or synagogue. He was sentenced to two and one-half years in prison and 10 years of probation, which includes mental health treatment along with drug and alcohol testing.

Finnegan has been released from prison and assisted in the rebuilding and landscaping of the new church building which opened in July 2016.

Guilty Pleas in Springfield, Massachusetts, Church Arson Case

On June 16 and 22, 2010, two Springfield, Massachusetts, men pleaded guilty to federal civil-rights charges for the burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield. The fire occurred in the early morning of Nov. 5, 2008. Shortly after the election of President Obama, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason doused the predominantly African-American church with gasoline and set a fire that completely destroyed the building. The church was under construction at the time and was 75 percent complete.

The men were charged with and pleaded guilty to intentionally defacing, damaging and destroying any religious real property because of the race, color or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that religious property under the Church Arson Prevention Act. They also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate civil rights. Haskell was sentenced to nine years in prison; Gleason was sentenced to 54 months (four and one-half years).

On April 14, 2011, a jury in Massachusetts convicted Michael Jacques, a third co-conspirator, of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, which makes it a crime to intentionally damage, destroy or attempt to destroy religious property, or use force or threat of force to interfere with religious exercise. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to deprive parishioners of their civil rights, and use of fire in the course of a federal felony. Jacques was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Indiana Man Pleads Guilty to Toledo, Ohio, Mosque Arson

On April 16, 2013, a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio, sentenced an Indiana man to 20 years in prison for the arson of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. Randolph Linn of St. Joe, Indiana, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to federal charges for entering the mosque on Sept. 30, 2012, with a container of gasoline and a gun, pouring the gas on the rug in the prayer hall, and setting it on fire, causing extensive damage to the mosque.

Linn pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, as well as using fire to commit a felony and carrying a firearm to commit a felony.

Living Savior Lutheran Church in Tualatin, Oregon – March 2012

Living Savior Lutheran Church

The sanctuary portion of the church was only three years old. It had sprinklers and received limited fire loss, but did suffer substantial smoke and water damage.

The fire started around 3:17 a.m. on Monday, March 19, 2012, at the Living Savior Lutheran Church and Living Savior Preschool, located at 8740 Southwest Sagert Street in Tualatin, Oregon.

The fire was started by two 13-year-old boys in the pastor’s office, using available rubbing alcohol and a lighter. The boys gained entrance to the church using a master key. When the window was broken in the office, it provided a clear path for the fire to spread quickly to the two-story preschool and additional office space, resulting in heavy loss. The sanctuary portion of the church was only three years old. It had sprinklers and received limited fire loss, but did suffer substantial smoke and water damage.

Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue Public Information Officer Brian Barker stated, “This was an intense fire for us to fight because within minutes of our arrival, the fire was already spreading into the building’s attic and a number of void spaces between walls and additions to the structure, complicating the fire fight. Our firefighters battled this fire for hours from both the inside and outside of the structure.”

The incident was investigated by the Tualatin Police Department, Oregon State Police, fire investigators from Portland Fire and Rescue, and two Certified Fire Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The fire scene was also examined by Lieutenant Fabian Jackson from the Portland Fire and Rescue Investigations Unit and his accelerant detection canine (ADC) partner, Lila. This canine team was highlighted as part of the U.S. Fire Administration’s 2015 Arson Awareness Week which focused on the value of ADCs across America.

A Tualatin police officer at the school where the boys attended received information regarding the fire. Two 13-year-old boys were arrested and charged with second degree burglary, first degree arson, and theft. The motive for the arson fire was to cover up the robbery/burglary of searching for money in the office.

Later, as part of their plea agreements, one boy plead guilty to first degree arson with the burglary and theft charges dismissed, receiving an 11-year sentence with the Oregon Youth Authority. The other boy was sentenced to five years of probation.

Mossman Church in Eagle Butte, South Dakota – July 2015

Mossman Church

The Mossman Church was built in 1917 and considered a local, historic landmark. It burned to the ground and and there are no plans to rebuild.

On Sunday, July 19, 2015, three Native American men, Cody Yellow, 27, Robert Grindstone, 28, and Ake Kyle Eagle Hunter, 28, were drinking alcohol together in a car when they stopped near the Mossman Church, a rural church on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation near Ridgeview and Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Around 3:24 p.m., Yellow kicked open the door to the church. Once they were inside, the three men vandalized the church. Grindstone found a can with an ignitable liquid inside it in a room adjacent to the altar, and one of the others suggested burning the church down. Grindstone opened the can and intentionally dropped the metal container, letting the contents spill out. After that, one of the other two men lit the liquid accelerant on fire. The church burned to the ground – it was a total loss.

The incident was investigated by the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI; and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, along with their accelerant detection canine, Maggie.

The Mossman Church was built in 1917 as a Catholic chapel (St. Basil’s Church), but hasn’t been part of the Roman Catholic Church since 1935. It no longer had regular services, but hosted weddings, funerals and an annual Memorial Day Mass. The church was considered a local, historic landmark.

The three men, all enrolled tribal members, were indicted for third degree burglary and arson by a federal grand jury on Aug. 11, 2015. Yellow and Grindstone pled guilty to arson and aiding and abetting. Grindstone pled guilty to accessory after the fact. The three men were convicted in federal court for their roles in burning down a 98-year-old church on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and were sentenced on April 18, 2016. Cody Yellow was sentenced to 41 months in custody, Ake Kyle Eagle Hunter was sentenced to 35 months, and Robert Grindstone was sentenced to 37 months. All three were sentenced to two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $3,776.92 restitution to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe for the cost of extinguishing the fire.

The Mossman Church was completely destroyed, and there are no plans to rebuild.

East Texas Church Arsons – January and February 2010

Dover Baptist Church

Many of the fires were set by piling up readily available fuels, such as hymnals and furniture, and setting them on fire in front of altars and pulpits.

There were 10 churches intentionally set on fire between January and February 2010 in Smith, Henderson and Van Zandt counties in East Texas. Two local men, Jason Bourque, 19, and Daniel McAllister, 21, sometimes working together and other times apart, admitted to torching these 10 rural churches. The pair were arrested, pled guilty, and were sentenced to life in prison, with Bourque getting life plus 20 years.

A specific motive for the fires was never determined, but covering up burglaries was believed to be the reason for several of the arsons. In addition to the fires, the two men were also linked to break-ins. Many of the fires were set by piling up readily available fuels, such as hymnals and furniture, and setting them on fire in front of altars and pulpits. The arson attacks were on a variety of churches, including Baptist, nondenominational, Christian Scientist and Methodist.

The incidents were investigated by the Texas Department of Public Safety; the FBI; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Texas Rangers; the Texas State Fire Marshal; and the involved county sheriff’s departments. Investigators said the arsonists were identified and captured using “good old-fashioned police work” which included analyzing boot prints, shoe prints, DNA, surveillance videos, fingerprints, and the assistance of a yellow lab named Nina, an ATF trained and certified accelerant detection canine that alerted on ignitable liquids at several scenes.

The 10 churches are:

  • Little Hope Baptist Church, Canton, Texas — Jan. 1, 2010.
  • Faith Church, Athens, Texas — Jan. 1, 2010.
  • Lake Athens Baptist Church, Athens, Texas — Jan. 12, 2010.
  • Grace Community Church, Athens, Texas — Jan. 12, 2010.
  • Tyland Baptist Church, Tyler, Texas — Jan. 16, 2010.
  • First Church of Christ, Tyler, Texas — Jan. 17, 2010.
  • Prairie Creek Fellowship, Lindale, Texas — Jan. 20, 2010 (one room — not destroyed).
  • Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, Wills Point, Texas — Feb. 4, 2010.
  • Dover Baptist Church, Lindale, Texas — Feb. 8, 2010.
  • Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, Lindale, Texas — Feb. 8, 2010.

Photos for your outreach materials

These high resolution, public domain photos are free for you to use in materials you create to help prevent arson at houses of worship.

Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship
Photo of a house of worship