Fire damages fourth house of worship in L.A. neighborhood
12:38 p.m., May 7, 2003
LOS ANGELES – Four fires over 11 days at places of worship in the San Fernando Valley were the work of a single arsonist who started at least two of the blazes during the daytime, authorities said Wednesday.
Fire Chief William Bamattre said he suspects the fires were started by one person using some sort of flammable material.
"We're just horrified ... it just sickens all of us," said Jennifer Laing, whose husband is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, scene of the first fire on April 26.
The latest fire came at Valley Beth Shalom on Ventura Boulevard early Wednesday morning. The fire was extinguished by the facility's sprinkler system.
Two blazes occurred Monday. One was reported at the Bahai Community Center and caused at least $10,000 damage. Nearly 12 hours later, a fire burned the roof of an Iranian synagogue. No damage estimate was available.
No one was hurt in any of the fires, which all occurred in the Encino area.
"You know these senseless acts are more than just crimes," Mayor James Hahn said. "People have come here because maybe they faced persecution in other countries for practicing their faith. So this is something we can't tolerate here in Los Angeles."
A small incendiary device appeared to have been tossed through a window of the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue, Hahn said at a news conference there.
Police Chief William Bratton said the counter-terrorism bureau division had assigned 65 detectives to help investigate the fires. The city's House of Worship Task Force, which includes representatives from federal agencies, was also investigating.
City officials urged anyone with information to contact arson investigators and to report any suspicious activity.
The fire last month at the First Presbyterian Church caused about $20,000 damage. It occurred about 1 a.m. and gutted the office of the Rev. Janelle Tibbetts, associate pastor at church, which is located next to a fire station.
Wednesday, the south side of the church was covered with a tarp. A sign read: "Arson is a crime." Investigators believe flammable liquid was used to start the fire, Tibbetts said.
"It just seems very surreal that someone would pick all of these different places of faith and do something like this," Tibbetts said.
No threats had been made against the church, which has about 200 members, she said.
"It could be someone whose just angry at God in any form or religion in any form," Tibbetts said. "There's just no way of knowing."
– Associated Press Writer Nada El Sawy contributed to this story.
©Copyright 2003, Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA, USA)
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