FBI investigating ‘highly suspicious’ fire at Black church as potential hate crime

Josh Marcus-Tue, December 29, 2020, 1:49 PM EST

Local and federal officials are investigating a “highly suspicious” fire that engulfed a Black church in SpringfieldMassachusetts on Monday as a potential hate crime.

Firefighters arrived at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Presbyterian Church at around 5am on Monday morning and spent about an hour battling the blaze.

“It’s a church that burned at nighttime, so it’s a potential hate crime,” Springfield Fire Commissioner Bernard Calvi told reporters on Monday. “It’s highly suspicious,” he added, noting there have been three fires in the general area in the last three weeks.

Local fire authorities are examining the site to rule out any accidental causes, while Springfield police, Massachusetts state fire investigators, and federal authorities including the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the incident as well.

Some already believe the fire may have been intentional.

“It’s pretty devastating,” Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Services, a social service agency associated with the church, told local news channel WWLP. “We’ve had sort of small little fires back around some cardboard that was stored and the department took care of that issue for us. We didn’t think too much of it, thought could have been maybe someone tossed a cigarette or something like that, but clearly there were some other intentions.”

Members of the church said the loss is painful, but their community is more than their facility.

“The building is the building,” church clerk Lisa Baker told WWLP. “It holds lots of memories but it’s not our church. Our church is our people.

State fire investigators urge anyone with information about the fire to call their hotline at 1-800-682-9229, and are offering a $5,000 reward.

Federal hate crime statistics come out on a delay, but according to FBI statistics released this November, hate crimes rose to the highest level in more than a decade in 2019.

Earlier this month, Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, took credit for burning a Black Lives Matter banner belonging to a local church during a day of pro-Trump rallies in Washington DC. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, though Mr Tarrio said it wasn’t a hate crime because Black Lives Matter “isn’t about race.”

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