Article Last Updated: Thursday, May 08, 2003 - 6:12:22 AM PST
Houses of worship under attack in L.A. Incendiary devices thrown through stained-glass windows
By Sandra Marquez, Associated Press
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.
At Valley Beth Shalom Temple, a broken stained glass window marked the spot of the latest blaze early Wednesday morning.
Someone broke the window that faces busy Ventura Boulevard and tossed an incendiary device inside, authorities said. Flames erupted a short distance from the temple's sacred scrolls but were quickly extinguished by the automatic sprinkler system.
"We are very fortunate," said Andrew Hyman, the temple's vice president of religion.
Authorities said the other attacks targeted a Presbyterian church, Iranian Jewish temple and a Bahai worship center within a five-mile radius.
"You know these senseless acts are more than just crimes," Mayor James Hahn said at a news conference at Valley Beth Shalom later in the morning. "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."
Officials and religious leaders who gathered at the temple said at least 65 detectives from local and federal law enforcement agencies were investigating the attacks.
"This attack occurred just as the rush hour was beginning. Undoubtedly, there are people out there with information," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who announced a $25,000 reward for information that helps solve the crimes.
Police Chief William Bratton said a task force initially formed to investigate a spate of arsons at religious sites in 1996 will investigate the latest incidents.
The arson spree began April 26 at the First Presbyterian Church of Encino, which is located next to a fire station. The fire occurred about 1 a.m. and gutted a church office. It caused an estimated $20,000 in damage to the nearly 8,000 square foot facility.
"We're just horrified ... it just sickens all of us," said Jennifer Laing, whose husband is church pastor.
Two other 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.
Randolph Dobbs, secretary for the Spiritual Center of the Baha'is of Los Angeles, said 60 percent of the congregation is from Iran, where the 159-year-old faith originated.
"This resonates because they had to flee the country for their lives," Dobbs said. "They thought this was a country of free worship."
He said two off-duty paramedics spotted the flames at 11:15 a.m. and began to extinguish it 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."
Fire Chief William Bamattre said he suspects the fires were started by one person using some sort of flammable material.
"Certainly that is the assumption because of the geographic location," Bamattre said.
Rabbi Harold Schulweiss of Valley Beth Shalom said the arson attacks have brought people together.
Immediately after the flames erupted at his temple, Schulweiss said, the custodians on duty, who are Catholic, rushed to protect the sacred torah scrolls.
"We have all of us been religiously violated and we need each other," he said.
Associated Press Writer Nada El Sawy contributed to this story.
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