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Photos, video released in 2016 church arson investigation

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: September 28, 2017, 9:56am
3 Photos
A baseball-style cap recovered from the scene of the Daybreak Youth Services fire on May 29, 2016.
A baseball-style cap recovered from the scene of the Daybreak Youth Services fire on May 29, 2016. Photo Gallery

Investigators on Thursday released surveillance photos and video of a suspect in a series of intentionally set fires that damaged three Clark County churches in May 2016.

Clark County Assistant Fire Marshal Curtis Eavenson said they’ve had the video since the time of the fires, but for investigative reasons haven’t released them until now.

The video shows the suspect, whom investigators have only described as an adult man, outside of Daybreak Youth Services, where the third fire was set. Investigators also released the photo of a colorful, distinct-looking baseball cap that was found at the same fire scene.

Eavenson said that in the year and four months since the three fires, investigators have followed all leads to the furthest extent, yet so far do not know who the suspect is. They hope that showing the photos and video to the public will help spur more leads.

DNA evidence has also been collected in the case, but investigators say they still don’t know the identity of the suspect in the blazes, which left three churches damaged.

The series of arsons began May 25, 2016. At about 3 a.m., Vancouver firefighters were alerted to a fire at the First Congregational Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. The blaze nearly destroyed the west steeple of the building, with damage totaling more than $2 million.

The following day at around the same time, a fire was reported at Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in the Salmon Creek area. Sprinklers doused the flames, reducing the fire damage but causing extensive water damage, investigators said.

A few days went by without anything amiss, but eventually arson struck again.

The third fire was reported about 2 a.m. May 29, 2016 at 11910 N.E. 154th St. in Brush Prairie. The building is the former home of the Bethesda Slavic Church, which was being converted into an addiction treatment center for teens by Daybreak Youth Services.

Shortly after the fire, The Church Arsonist Task Force was established. It includes investigators from the county fire marshal’s office, Vancouver Fire Department, Vancouver Police Department, Clark County Sheriff’s Office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Similar methods were used to set all of the fires, which investigators say were started by the same person or persons, Eavenson said.

He said that deciding when to release video or photo evidence is always a balancing act, as you risk the suspect fleeing.

“If you release it too soon, you may mess up the rest of your investigation,” Eavenson said. “We chose to follow all of our leads. Now that we’ve followed them to the furthest extent, we’re hoping this will spur some more.”

The video doesn’t show the suspect actually setting the fire, but it does show the suspect moving through the scene moments prior to the fire, Eavenson said. The suspect is holding something in the videos, but investigators wouldn’t say what that was.

From the images and video you can see a distant shot of the person’s face and the suspect’s profile.

A reward of up to $20,000 has been made available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.

Anyone with a tip is asked to contact investigators through the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office at 360-397-2186, ext. 3324, or the Clark County Sheriff’s Office at 360-397-6079. Tipsters also can contact the Clark County Sheriff’s Office tip line at 877-CRIME11 (877-274-6311) or email CCSOMCU@gmail.com

Ken Rowe, communications chairman for the First Congregational United Church of Christ, the church most damaged in string of arsons, called Thursday a good day.

For the most part, the church’s congregation has moved on and is now focused on rebuilding their church. While the exterior construction has been completed, the church is currently awaiting permits to do work on the interior of the sanctuary, Rowe said.

He said he plans to look at the photos and video to see if he recognizes the person from the homeless who were sometimes on the property.

“We want this to get resolved,” he said. Once that happens, he said, “I think everybody will have a sigh of relief and be satisfied that justice is going to be done.”

Eavenson said he wanted the congregation and community to know that the fire investigators have not given up.

“We are as passionate about catching this person now as we were the first day that the fires occurred and we are going to continue to pursue every lead that’s developed,” he said. “We will not give up on this case. We will find this person someday.”

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