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Eyewitness News
Southern California's Leader

Fifth Incident Linked to String of Firebombings, Man Questioned

NORTHRIDGE A fifth incident has been linked to an arsonist who has struck four houses of worship in the past 12 days, authorities said Thursday.

Meanwhile, a man arrested on suspicion of trespassing at 4 a.m. inside a gym on the California State University, Northridge campus was being questioned in connection with the arsons, Assistant Police Chief Jim McDonnell said.

Police arrested a man for allegedly trespassing at the CSUN campus. They questioned him about the recent firebombings at houses of worship in Encino. Later he was released.
"The person arrested this morning was arrested an unrelated charge," McDonnell said. "We have not ruled out that person as a suspect. But the investigation is ongoing."

McDonnell did not release the name of the man.

The latest act linked to the arsonist occurred at a Jewish educational center Tuesday night and was reported by a witness who ran outside after a cinder block was thrown through a window.

"We can anticipate that trying to get through the window is an attempt to try and burn the location," McDonnell said.

The incident, which has been classified as vandalism, occurred at the D. Torah Educational Center in Encino, just blocks away from the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue that was firebombed Wednesday morning.

The attacks have been brazen, rapid and seemingly indiscriminate, with four houses of worship representing a variety of faiths set afire since April 26 by someone bold enough to operate in daylight and even in the shadows of a fire station.

A stained-glass window was shattered and a firebomb tossed inside the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue, which is located along Ventura Boulevard, one of the suburban San Fernando Valley's busiest streets. The attack took place about 6:30 a.m., just as the morning rush hour was beginning.

The nearby Bahai Community Center, where most of the congregation is Iranian, and an Iranian synagogue were struck two days earlier, about 12 hours apart. The First Presbyterian Church of Encino, which sits next door to a fire station, was hit on April 26.

"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." Mayor James Hahn said.

Authorities believe the same person is responsible for each of the attacks, which occurred within a five-mile radius in one of the valley's more fashionable neighborhoods.

"Certainly that is the assumption because of the geographic location," said Fire Chief William Bamattre.

Wednesday's attack came close to destroying the temple's sacred scrolls, but a maintenance worker was able to carry them to safety as the building's automatic sprinkler system doused the flames.

The First Presbyterian Church suffered an estimated $20,000 in damage, including a church office that was gutted.

"We're just horrified ... it just sickens all of us," said Jennifer Laing, whose husband is church pastor.

A damage estimate was not immediately available for the Iranian synagogue, where the roof was burned, but the Bahai Community Center suffered at least $10,000 in damage.

Still, it could have been much worse, said Randolph Dobbs, the center's secretary. Two off-duty paramedics spotted the flames at 11:15 a.m. and doused them with a garden hose until firefighters arrived.

"To us it was divine providence," Dobbs said. "It's an older wooden building. In a few minutes, it would have all gone down."

Officials and religious leaders gathered at Valley Beth Shalom predicted the attacker would soon fall into the dragnet of at least 65 detectives from local and federal law enforcement agencies investigating the crimes. Authorities are reviewing surveillance video from a bank near the synagogue.

"This attack occurred just as the rush hour was beginning. Undoubtedly, there are people out there with information," said City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who announced a $25,000 reward for information that helps solve the crimes.

Last Updated: May 8, 2003

©Copyright 2003, KABC-TV (Los Angles, CA, USA)

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