ST. LOUIS (AP) — Authorities charged A 35-year-old black St. Louis man with arson for two of the seven church fires in a predominantly African-American part of the St. Louis region, and federal investigators said there is no evidence of a hate crime.
David Lopez Jackson was charged Friday in St. Louis Circuit Court with two counts of second-degree arson in the fires at Ebenezer Lutheran Church and New Life Missionary Baptist Church, both in the city. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said investigations continue into the other fires — three in St. Louis, two in nearby Jennings — and Jackson is a suspect in all of them.
The fires were set between Oct. 8 and Oct. 22. Five of the congregations are predominantly black, one is racially mixed and one is mostly white.
The fires spurred a hate-crime investigation to determine if the attacks were motivated by race or religion. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives downplayed that possibility in a statement on Friday.
"There appears to be no indication of a hate crime or sign ... any one particular Christian denomination or ethnic group was being targeted," the federal agency said.
Dotson gave no alternative explanation for the attacks, saying investigators "are still trying to understand" the motive.
The region is still recovering from the events surrounding last year's police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, and a grand jury's subsequent decision not to charge the officer who shot him. Brown was black and unarmed when he was shot by white Darren Wilson in a case that helped spur the national "Black Lives Matter" movement, and it renewed concern about the treatment of minorities in and around St. Louis.
Most of the fires were during the night when churches were unoccupied, although one at a Catholic church was during the day when a priest was there.
No one was hurt in any of the incidents. Damage was mostly minimal, but New Life Missionary Baptist Church was so badly damaged that pastor David Triggs wasn't certain if the congregation would rebuild or move.
In all seven fires the front doors were ignited. Dotson said gas was used as an accelerant in both fires that resulted in charges against Jackson. He said forensics evidence linked Jackson to the crime, though he did not elaborate. Surveillance footage also tied Jackson's car to one of the fires, and Dotson said police found evidence in the car that included a gasoline canister and a Thermos bottle that smelled of gas.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the fires hit at the heart of the community — places of worship.
"It's just absolutely despicable that somebody would go after churches," he said.
Msgr. Robert J. Gettinger of St. Augustine Catholic Church, damaged in a fire on Oct. 14, said he and his congregation of about 300 families, most of them black, are pleased that the suspect is off the street and no longer a threat, although Jackson was not charged Friday with the fire at the Catholic church.
"There was a fear in a lot of people, so you're certainly relieved," Gettinger said. "Hopefully he'll get some kind of help."
Gettinger was also relieved that the attack was apparently not racially motivated.
"It's helpful" for the region, Gettinger said. "We don't need anything else like that with Ferguson going on."
The Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings, which suffered damage Oct. 10, agreed.
"I believe the St. Louis community will have a sigh of relief," Burton said. "Given our history of racial division, it will be a great relief that it is not motivated by prejudice."
The churches represented several denominations — two Catholic, two Baptist, one Lutheran, one Church of Christ and one non-denominational.
This version corrects the day of the ATF statement to Friday.