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Mayor Calls String Of Church Fires 'Acts Of Terrorism'

Fire Damages Fourth House Of Worship In Encino

UPDATED: 2:09 p.m. PDT May 7, 2003

ENCINO, Calif. -- 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.

Mayor Jim Hahn called four fires at houses of worship in Encino "acts of terrorism" at a news conference Wednesday morning as local and religious leaders discussed how to combat the problem.

"These senseless acts are more than just crimes. They go against everything Los Angeles stands for," Hahn said. "These are acts of terrorism, acts of hatred and they tear at the very fabric of our community."

"You know these senseless acts are more than just crimes," 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 the news conference.

Police Chief William Bratton said the counterterrorism 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.

Bratton encouraged people at houses of worship to be watchful Wednesday and said that the case is a top priority for local authorities.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said at the news conference that he would secure a $25,000 reward from the city council for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the fires.

"One of the major antidotes to the toxicity of hate and violence is love and compassion," a local rabbi said.

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."

©Copyright 2003, NBC4 (Los Angles, CA, USA)

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