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$25,000 reward offered for information leading to arrest, conviction in Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall arson fires, shooting

UPDATED: Wed., July 18, 2018

In this screen grab, ATF agents are asking for the public’s help in identifying a person of interest in the four increasingly dangerous attacks on churches in Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm. (Olympian)
In this screen grab, ATF agents are asking for the public’s help in identifying a person of interest in the four increasingly dangerous attacks on churches in Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm. (Olympian)
By Lauren Smith and Rolf Boone Olympian

Multiple law enforcement agencies gathered Wednesday in Olympia to announce a reward for information regarding three arsons and one shooting at three Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall locations in Thurston County this spring.

Anyone with information that leads to an arrest and conviction in connection to these crimes is offered a $25,000 payout.

Darek Pleasants, the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Seattle Field Division, appealed to the public for assistance in locating the persons responsible during the Wednesday news conference.

“It is only a matter of time before one of these incidents escalates into an injury or fatality in our community,” he said.

Pleasants said there is a person and vehicle of interest which could have a connection to the crimes, but they have not been located.

Agencies are searching for a man who was seen at about 4:45 p.m. May 29 purchasing fire logs at the Fred Meyer in Tumwater. He is shown in surveillance photos wearing a dark coat, jeans and a Seattle Seahawks cap.

The logs the man purchased were of the same brand used in the July 3 fire that destroyed the Kingdom Hall location in Olympia. The fire, reported at about 3 a.m. July 3, left most of the church in ruin.

“The walls are still standing, but that’s about it,” Olympia Assistant Fire Chief Rob Bradley told the Olympian later that morning.

A vehicle of interest, believed to be a 2017 Jeep Renegade, was also captured on surveillance video at about 12:50 a.m. at the Olympia location.

“It is imperative that law enforcement identify who they are and speak with them,” Pleasants said.

Elder speaks

Olympia Kingdom Hall elder David Norman was among those who gathered for Wednesday’s news conference. The hall on Cain Road was home to four congregations, totaling 350 to 400 people. Those members are now holding their meetings at other halls in the area, he said.

The Olympia location offered three services in English and one in American sign language, Norman said.

He said the Olympia congregation was disappointed in the July 3 fire, but wasn’t surprised by it after the previous attempt in March. The congregation is keeping its spirits up, he said, and local law enforcement and fire officials have been “nothing but supportive, helpful and encouraging.”

Norman said he did not recognize the man identified as a person of interest Wednesday and he was not aware of any attacks directed at Kingdom Halls in other parts of the state or country.

“It’s a sad thing to see that a community building would be damaged by one person and their drive,” Norman said. “We live in difficult times, and we shouldn’t be surprised that people will occasionally act out.”

Previous incidents

The fire that destroyed the Olympia hall was the third fire reported at a Kingdom Hall in Thurston County in the past five months.

That location was also targeted by an arsonist on March 19, but the fire caused limited damage.

Bradley told the Olympian in March that surveillance footage showed a person “clearly pouring a liquid around the outside of the church” at some time before 8:20 a.m.

More crews were dispatched to the Kingdom Hall in Tumwater at about 9 a.m. that day when members of the congregation noticed smoke rising from the north side of the building. Investigators determined two fires were set there.

On May 16, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office confirmed “multiple rounds” were fired at the Kingdom Hall location in Yelm.

Deputies arrived several minutes after reports of gunfire, but were unable to locate a suspect. Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said Wednesday there were 35 bullet holes in the church, and deputies recovered shell casings and a Monster energy drink from the scene.

The suspect is believed to have shot at the church from the west side of Vail Road Southeast.

No injuries were reported at any of the three fires or the shooting in Yelm, but Snaza said all four incidents are being treated as hate crimes.

Anyone with information about these incidents can remain anonymous, and is asked to call ATF at (800) ATF-TIPS, South Sound Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-TIPS or the Arson Alarm Foundation at (800) 55A-RSON.

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