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Arson and hate crime suspected in latest attack on Jehovah's Witnesses near Olympia

Tom Banse
NW News Network
A highly suspicious early morning fire on December 7, 2018 destroyed the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Lacey, Washington.

A suspicous fire early Friday morning destroyed the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Lacey, Washington. If confirmed as arson, this would be the sixth attack on the faith in Thurston County this year.
No one was injured.

Federal arson investigators were at the scene Friday collecting evidence from the still-smoldering worship hall. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents were not ready to connect this fire to previous arsons targeting Jehovah's Witnesses buildings, but John Snaza, the Thurston County sheriff, said the circumstances look like a hate crime.

"It's obviously someone — or some persons — who are definitely disgruntled with Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Halls in Thurston County," Snaza said at a late morning news briefing.

Previously, someone set fire to the Kingdom Halls in Olympia, Tumwater, and Yelm. In a separate incident, a person fired a volley of rifle shots into the Yelm building.

"Thank the Lord nobody has been hurt" in any of these incidents, Snaza said.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza speaks at a news briefing in front of the burned-down Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Lacey, Washington. At his immediate left is ATF Asst. Special Agent in Charge Jonathan Blais.

The attacks began March 19 with two attempted arsons at the places of worship in Tumwater and Olympia. Damage to both was minor that night, but a repeat attempt on July 3 completely destroyed the Olympia Kingdom Hall. 

On August 8, church officials found smoldering fire logs stacked against the outside wall of the Kingdom Hall in Yelm. Sheriff's deputies later discovered a suspicious item made to look like an explosive elsewhere on the grounds. Damage was minimal that time.

Members of the Lacey congregation kept a low profile Friday, leaving it to Snaza to relay their reaction.

"I would say 'scared' is probably the nicest word to say," Snaza observed. "More or less, they are terrified. Why are they being targeted? Why is this specific religion being targeted? Why are these churches being targeted? What are they doing that is so wrong and oppressive?"

Seattle-based ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jonathan Blais said his agency has developed a list of persons of interest based on the previous arsons.

"There have been several people that have been interviewed and some people have been identified at this time," Blais said. "Those are part of the investigation that is ongoing."

A sign on the corner of the burned building in Lacey read, "Warning: Security Cameras In Use." Blais declined to say if investigators were able to recover useful imagery from the security system.

TheATF has a standing offerof a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible. The Arson Alarm Foundation and Crime Stoppers of South Sound added to the reward pool for a possible total reward of $36,000.

Steve Brooks, chief of Lacey Fire District No. 3, said the Kingdom Hall was fully involved when the first fire crews arrived on scene around 3:45 a.m. He said commanders quickly decided they could only fight the fire defensively from the outside.

Firefighters arriving later had to watch their footing as water runoff quickly turned to sheets of ice due to the frigid morning temperature. Sacks of de-icer pellets were stacked in the church parking lot at midday.

All of the officials at the scene appealed to the public for tips to solve the arson spree. The phone number for tips is 1-888-ATF-TIPS.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.