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News / Clark County News

2 teens get 24 hours community service in fire that destroyed old Cherry Grove Church

Damage was $1M, says owner of Battle Ground site

By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 5, 2022, 7:02pm

Two teenagers were sentenced to 24 hours of community service Wednesday morning, six months after sparking a fire that burned down the old Cherry Grove Church and home of a Battle Ground man.

Marty Wirtanen, now 18, and Bryden Johnston, 17, each pleaded guilty in Clark County juvenile court to first-degree reckless burning. They were both originally charged with first-degree arson, which carried a sentencing range of 8½ to nearly 11 weeks in a juvenile facility, court records show.

The plea agreements included a sentencing recommendation of 32 hours of community service, but Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis ordered 24 hours.

Deputy Prosecutor Kristen Arnaud said the plea agreement prioritizes restitution to the property owner, Steve Slocum, over incarceration for the teenagers. She said incarceration would not help them become productive members of society or ensure they pay back the man whose property was covered with beloved collectibles — including hundreds of mannequins.

The restitution amount has not yet been set, but Arnaud said she’s heard from Slocum that the cost of repairs will be around $1 million and that his insurance will only cover half. That leaves a likely amount of $500,000 to be split between Wirtanen and Johnston.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Slocum said he was hoping to see a harsher consequence for the crime that burned everything he owned.

“The message is that you can cause over $1 million worth of damage — destroy our lives — and you’re going to have to spend 24 hours picking up trash,” he said in a phone interview.

Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue was dispatched at 2:24 a.m. July 5 to the church at 24209 N.E. 92nd Ave., after a neighbor called to report he’d heard an explosion.

A neighbor’s security cameras captured video of a car stopping in front of the church before someone steps out of the rear passenger door and throws a flaming object toward the building. As the car drives off, an explosion can be seen.

In August, the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office offered a reward of $10,000 for the identity of the people in the car.

Five teenagers, ages 16 and 17, turned themselves in to police in September, according to a probable cause affidavit. Johnston was driving the group back from Long Beach and drove to the church property. Wirtanen told police he threw a mortar at the property, the affidavit states.

The other three teens were not charged.

Slocum was sitting on the back porch of the church and his home with his nephew when they heard a loud bang, he said. Slocum’s nephew started shouting that the church was on fire. Slocum also called for help and grabbed a fire extinguisher before firefighters arrived. Still, he lost everything he owned.

“It’s like, you know, I hope you got a real good thrill because I’m going to have a lifetime of misery from this,” Slocum said the day of the fire.

When fire crews arrived, they found flames in the steeple and attic of the church, according to Fire Chief John Nohr. A 200-gallon propane tank next to the church also blocked firefighters as it vented flames and propane for over an hour as pressure built up inside the tank from the heat, according to the fire department.

Ten engines, one ladder truck, four chief officers, four water tenders and one rehab unit responded to the fire from Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, Clark County Fire District 3 and the Vancouver Fire Department. They called for a rehab unit because the battle lasted several hours and because the fire began after a long, busy weekend for the firefighters responding to fireworks calls for the Fourth of July, Nohr said.