Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wasilla Bible Church -- Arson Update

When the fire was extinguished, and the smouldering embers subdued, investigators from the Seattle office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) moved in to lead the infernal investigation.

The earlier suspicions of arson were quickly confirmed. But it was more than mischievous match play. It began to reveal the signs of a motivated arson.

From the ATF statement:

On December 13, 2008 the Central Mat-Su Fire Department and the Alaska State Fire Marshals Office contacted ATF Anchorage Field Office and requested assistance in investigating the fire that occurred on December 12, 2008. The on-site investigation revealed an ignitable accelerant that had been poured on and around the exterior of the church in multiple locations, to include the entrances and exits. Evidence recovered from the fire scene was collected and retained by members of the Alaska State Crime Laboratory.

The type of accelerant used has not been identified. But, when they call in ATF, it's usually not about the alcohol and tobacco.

The day after the fire, the editorial writer for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, still reacting to the news, likened the burning of a church to an act of terrorism. The traces of accelerant, at several locations around the building, "including entrances and exits," would seem to lend a little more gravitas to the Frontiersman's opinion.

But, if the fire was deliberately set by someone who was 'motivated', the questions remain -- who did it? and why? S. J. Komarnitsky, reporting for the Anchorage Daily News writes:

The Friday-night blaze caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the 2-1/2-year-old building and displaced one of the largest congregations in the Valley. Five church members were inside when the blaze started, but they were able to get out safely after the fire alarm sounded.

The church, just off the Parks Highway on the western edge of town, conducts Sunday services attracting up to 1,000 people. Church members include many well-known Valley residents, including Palin, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer.

Palin's ties to the church have sparked widespread speculation about whether the person who lit the fire was motivated by that connection. However, Central Mat-Su Fire Department Chief James Steele said that idea remains in the realm of pure speculation.

"At this point, there is no information that we have that even points in that direction," he said.

Naturally because Governor Palin has such a high profile, state-wide and now country-wide, it is tempting to imagine an arsonist with some sort of Palin Derangement Syndrome. But it would be foolish to jump to that conclusion at this juncture. Heck, if and when the crime is solved, it might turn out that it was motivated by something very petty and small -- a grudge, an estrangement, a custody battle, a gambling debt, insurance fraud, a broken heart. Who knows?

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