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Accelerant found in ‘suspicious’ Northwest Side church fire

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Updated: December 11, 2013 6:50AM



Investigators have confirmed an accelerant was used in multiple places to spark a fire in a Northwest Side church early Saturday — just a day after bricks were thrown through the 85-year-old church’s front doors.

No one was reported injured in the fire at Outreach Community Church in the 4300 block of West Parker. The blaze broke out about 3:20 a.m., and was extinguished within about 40 minutes, fire officials said.

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were immediately notified. The bureau has investigated all house of worship fires since Congress enacted a mandate in the early 1990s after a rash of church fires in the South.

ATF agent Tom Ahern said the church was also vandalized on Friday.

“There was vandalism to the front doors yesterday,” Ahern said. “The two glass doors, someone threw a brick through it. It was reported to police.”

Ahern said the fire, which caused extensive damage but no injuries has been deemed suspicious and appeared to be deliberately set, but it has not yet been officially ruled a case of arson.

“If there’s multiple points of entry then it’s going to be pretty obvious that it was suspicious,” Ahern said.

The church’s pastor, Shawn C. Woodie, was on scene Saturday but declined comment on the fire.

A church member, who did not want to be named, said the church plans to hold its services in an adjacent building until the church is repaired. He said the neighborhood is usually quiet and the fire was unexpected.

“Nobody even litters in this neighborhood. Nobody stands on street corners. This is very unusual.”

Ahern said an accelerant-sniffing canine unit has confirmed accelerant on multiple areas of the church.

“It appears there were multiple points of origin of the fire here in the church, both up on the second-floor balcony and in the sanctuary itself. We have our accelerant detection canine teams here, and they have alerted multiple locations of some type of accelerant that was used.”

A canine unit confirmed accelerant in four of six samples collected by investigators. The dog sniffed the samples and sat whenever he detected accelerant.

The dogs are trained to sniff out 30 kinds of accelerants and explosives.

ATF agents on Saturday morning took samples in different areas of the church to see what accelerant was used. Those samples will be sent to a lab. Agents are also interviewing members of the church and those in the community to see if neighbors saw anything suspicious.

On Saturday morning, church members discussed the fire in a closed-door meeting in the adjoining building to the church, which is used for Sunday school.

Elizabeth Salcedo, is not a member, but has lived near the church for more than 20 years.

“I am worried because this is my neighborhood. ... Nothing like this has ever happened.”

Salcedo said the church had been shuttered for years before the community church opened in 2000. She said some residents did not want the church to open, arguing it would create too much noise on the block.

“I remember when they first were going to open the church, they were passing a petition because they didn’t want it to open. I told them ‘are you kidding me?’” Salcedo said. “It’s a church. That would do good to our neighborhood.”

Besides the bashed in front glass doors from the vandalism, the church’s second-floor windows were destroyed by the force of the fire.

Inside, the pews were charred. The seats in the altar were destroyed. Fresh flowers placed in vases on the altar were destroyed. And a lectern used for sermons was thrown off the altar into the front row, also charred.

The church, originally the St. Stephens New Lutheran Church, was built in April 1928.

The police Bomb and Arson Unit is also investigating. The motive remains under investigation.

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @tinasfon



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