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Minnesota officials seek public's help in solving church fire cases

(Wikimedia Commons/MRetka)St. Mary's Catholic Church in Melrose in 2012.

Minnesota officials are asking the public to help solve the series of arson fires that have damaged 13 church buildings in eight Minnesota communities in the past five years.

According to The Minnesota State Fire Marshal, 13 churches have been intentionally set on fire since 2012, including the fire that caused millions of dollars in damage to the 118-year-old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Melrose last year.

The authorities do not believe that the church fires are related, but the Department of Public Safety has renewed its call for tips that could help in solving the cases.

"Churches may be targeted because they are unoccupied for long periods of time and many are located in rural, less populated areas," said Jim Iammatteo, the State Fire Marshal's chief investigator, according to City Pages.

"It may not matter to someone that the building is a church, rather that it is an easy target. Someone may also target a church for religious reasons, of course," he added.

Iammatteo said that the nine cases that remain open do not seem to be connected because the investigators have not found any patterns. He noted that thrill-seeking, revenge and bored kids topped the list of common motives in cases where a perpetrator has been caught.

In 2014, a teenager was caught on camera lighting church pews on fire, causing $10,000 worth of damage. "He was just bored. He had nothing else to do," said Coon Rapids Fire Inspector Todd Williams.

The suspect was ordered to attend a program for kids caught playing with fire, and he has not been implicated in another arson since.

That same year, a St. Paul man admitted to setting the pastor's office in St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church on fire after he was banned from the church. The man, who was not a member of the congregation, had been suspected of stealing valuables from the church. Neighbors helped solve the case when they witnessed the man heading toward the church shortly before the fire.

"People describing a vehicle that drove by at a certain time, information about a fire in someone's home, a conversation someone had with a neighbor 10 years ago," said Iammatteo, who noted that these were the kind of tips that helped solve cases in the past. "One tip could make all the difference," he added.

Other arson cases that remain unsolved include the Darling Historic Church in Little Falls on March 24, 2017; the Church, Inc., building in St. Paul on Feb. 15, 2016; Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on June 13, 2014; and St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Isanti on May 28, 2012.

The authorities are offering rewards up to $5,000 for tips leading to a conviction for the arson cases.

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