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Investigators explore if Idaho church arson merits federal charges

Firefighters worked hot spots of the arson fire at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bonners Ferry on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Firefighters worked hot spots of the arson fire at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bonners Ferry on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Federal investigators want to know if the arson that destroyed a Catholic church Thursday in Bonners Ferry was motivated by religious or racial bias.

If so, it could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime under the Church Arson Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 1996 in response to a rash of fires set in scores of black churches primarily in the South.

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are leading the investigation of the fire set at St. Ann’s Catholic Church. The fire, reported just after 1 a.m. Thursday, had been set in the church basement, where investigators also found signs of fresh vandalism.

“I would say it’s too early to determine whether or not there are federal charges” that apply in the case, said U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson of Boise. “We’re looking basically at two federal statutes,” the Church Arson Prevention Act and a separate federal law addressing arson and interstate commerce.

According to the FBI, arson and vandalism motivated in whole or part by an offender’s bias against a race or religion qualify as hate crimes. The Church Arson Prevention Act says defacing or destroying religious property because of the race, color or ethnic characteristics of anyone associated with the property is a federal crime that carries a prison term of 20 years.

St. Ann’s parish priest, Father Carlos Perez, is from Colombia, and some of the parishioners there are Hispanic.

Bonners Ferry Police Chief Vic Watson said Monday he is optimistic authorities will solve the crime.

“I’m pretty confident that we’re going to get charges filed in this and that the evidence is good enough that the people are going to have their day in court,” Watson said.

His department has turned the case over to federal agents. “We’re in the process of transferring evidence to those agencies for federal lab testing,” Watson said.

The police chief added, “Over the weekend we discovered further evidence. The evidence was located off-site, not within the remains of the fire, but in a separate location, which could potentially have a significant impact in the investigation.”

On Thursday morning, Watson said, investigators had identified a “person of interest” in the case who already was in custody on unrelated charges. No details about that person have been released.

St. Ann’s also had been vandalized in February, and investigators are looking into whether the crimes are connected.

Bishop Peter F. Christensen of the Diocese of Boise celebrated Mass with the Bonners Ferry parish Sunday morning at a nearby United Methodist Church.

Christensen assured the congregation that the church community will rise from the ashes. “And I want to give you some hope and I’ll give you a challenge, too. This church will be rebuilt,” he said to applause from the parishioners.

The church was insured through the diocese.

St. Ann’s had spent $300,000 on church renovations in recent years and had just finished remodeling the basement where the fire was set. A new roof was put on the 1960s-era church 10 years ago, and church leaders recently had decided to buy a security system but hadn’t yet installed the cameras.

About 150 families actively attend St. Ann’s.

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