June 18, 1996 in Nation/World

Arson Suspect Held In Soap Lake Fires More Than $110,000 Damage Done To Three Buildings, Including Two Churches

By The Spokesman-Review
 

An arson suspect is in custody after three fires, including two at churches, in the resort community of Soap Lake in the Columbia Basin.

No one was injured, but damages from the three fires exceed $110,000. Unlike a rash of church fires in the South, the two Soap Lake fires in the past week don’t appear to be racially motivated, authorities say.

The suspect, Anthony “Tony” Notaras, is a member of a large Soap Lake family with significant business holdings in the community.

The 59-year-old suspect, who has a history of mental illness, was arraigned Monday on three counts of first-degree arson.

The suspect was arrested over the weekend after an investigation by Soap Lake Police, the Grant County Sheriff’s Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

A June 10 fire gutted the interior of Our Most Sorrowful Mother Roman Catholic Church. A fire at 11:50 p.m. Friday caused an estimated $1,000 damage at the Community Evangelical Free Church. The two churches are one block apart.

Damage to the Community Evangelical church was minimal because a 72-year-old neighbor, Richard Bontius, ran barefoot from his bed just before midnight and knocked down the flames with a garden hose.

The third fire, at 3:55 a.m. Saturday, heavily damaged a rear wall at Don’s Restaurant, but it remains open for business.

Just hours later, Soap Lake police and ATF agents questioned and arrested Notaras, who was spotted fleeing the fire at Community Evangelical Free Church.

Notaras is not considered a suspect in seven wind-whipped rangeland and wheat field fires that blackened 2,200 acres in Grant County on Friday and Saturday, authorities said.

Soap Lake police asked ATF for help on Thursday in the investigation of the fire three days earlier at the Roman Catholic church. ATF agents returned to Soap Lake before dawn Saturday after the second and third fires.

Longtime residents of Soap Lake say they believe Notaras attended Sunday school at the Community Evangelical Free Church as a child.

His sister, Marina Romary, owns Don’s Restaurant, which is part of the Notaras Lodge complex. The suspect’s 82-year-old mother also lives in Soap Lake, as do three other sisters.

“I think Tony’s chemistry is off,” Marina Romary said after her brother’s arrest. “He’s a sick person, not a criminal.”

She said other family members attempted unsuccessfully to get state mental health help for her brother about two weeks ago.

That was about the same time he was spotted spreading bones around the Roman Catholic church in Soap Lake, one law enforcement official said.

Marina Romary said she doesn’t think her brother’s alleged fire-setting was triggered by church fires elsewhere.

“I don’t know why he did it,” she said. “He just needs help, and maybe now he’ll get it.”

In 1989, he was charged with destruction of property after an incident at church in Grant County. But that felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Details of that case, including the church damaged, couldn’t be obtained on Monday.

The fire at the brick Catholic church gutted the interior. Damage is estimated at $100,000. The church is served by the Rev. Richard House, of nearby Ephrata, who couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday.

At Community Evangelical Free Church, the Rev. Gordon Whipps said more than 100 members of his congregation signed a thank-you card for Bontius during Sunday’s service. Afterward, he and the senior pastor, the Rev. Robert DeViney hand-delivered the card to Bontius and his wife, Kay, who live across the street.

“He really averted a disaster for us,” Whipps said.

An addition is being built at the church, and the fire was started at a temporary entrance between the new construction and the existing building.

Kay Bontius called 911 and her husband, a retired electrician, ran from the house after the couple heard a noise outside that caused their dog, Samson, to bark.

Bontius said he spotted a man near the fire.

“I yelled at him and he wouldn’t run,” Bontius said. “Then I yelled some bad words about the so-and-so, and then he took off.”

Bontius grabbed a church garden hose and began spraying the flames, which were about 15 feet high. The hose was being used to water down concrete poured as part of the remodeling.

He said he thinks a Molotov cocktail or container of gasoline was thrown at the church by someone who intended to hit a window, but missed and hit the church wall.

“In our minds, they did a hero’s action in acting so quickly,” the church’s pastor said of his neighbors.

“We just did what any neighbors would do,” Kay Bontius said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area

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