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Authorities investigate attempted arson at Kingdom Hall in Yelm

YELM, Wash. -- Authorities on Wednesday were investigating after someone tried to set fire to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Yelm.

This comes after four other recent attacks on Kingdom Halls of Jehovah's Witnesses in Thurston County that are being investigated as hate crimes.

In the latest incident, authorities were called around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to the report of an attempted arson at the Kingdom Hall on Vail Road SE in Yelm.

The ensuing investigation closed a large section of Vail Road for most of the day.

Church elders had arrived to find fire logs stacked up against an outside wall that was smoldering. They doused the logs with water and prevented any further damage to the building.

The elders reported finding a suspicious device placed on the ground on the west side of the building. It "had the appearance of being an explosive device," so deputies called the bomb squad to the scene.

People living nearby the church told Q13 News they were told by law enforcement to evacuate for their own safety.

"I got woken up by my roommate Zachary saying there was a device on the church next door to our house and we needed to evacuate," said Richard McIntire.

McIntire's shared his concern about living so close to what's become a repeated target.

"I don’t understand why people have to target churches," he said.

Neighbors in rural Yelm expressed their worries about the attacks and hoped police would soon make an arrest before someone gets hurt.

By late afternoon investigators determined the suspicious device wasn't dangerous. The Thurston County Sheriff's Office later tweeted, "The suspicious device was made to look like a real bomb but in the end, it was found to be fake."

Hate crime investigations

Over the past four months, police say someone set fire to two Kingdom Halls in Tumwater and Olympia, and fired dozens of rounds into this same Kingdom Hall in Yelm.

The Kingdom Hall in Olympia was recently destroyed by fire.

"It’s a sad thing to see that a community building like this would be damaged by one person and their drive," said church elder David Norman. "We live in difficult times now."

Authorities want to talk to the man featured in the photo gallery below. They are not calling him a suspect, but a person of interest. He recently bought firewood starter logs like those used in the July 3 fire at the Olympia Kingdom Hall.

At a press conference in mid July, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives along with the Thurston County Sheriff's Office and the Arson Alarm Foundation announced a $36,000 reward for the suspect in the other incidents.

"We simply cannot tolerate these types of hate crimes and we must investigate and prosecute those responsible aggressively," said Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts.

Not only have these crimes had a tremendous impact on the religious community in Thurston County, it’s also touched those who live nearby. Neighbors near Olympia's Kingdom Hall attached letters of love and support to a fence that surround the burned out structure.

"It has been amazing the way the community has been supportive," Norman said. "The signs are only an indicator of the kind of love and empathy shown by the community. It has been amazing to see people rally to help the congregation."

It was not immediately clear if the latest incident was related to the other crimes.

Previous incidents:

  • Two arsons took place on March 19, one at a Tumwater Kingdom Hall, the second at an Olympia Kingdom Hall. Damage to both was minor.
  • The third incident took place May 15 when an unknown suspect shot at a Kingdom Hall in Yelm. Police said about 35 rifle rounds were fired at the building causing more than $10,000 in damage.
  • On July 3, police believe the same suspect came back to an Olympia Kingdom Hall and finished what he had started in March. The fire set in July destroyed the building.

Authorities haven't physically linked these crimes together by evidence but they do believe the same suspect is involved in each crime.

The ATF believes these incidents were meant to send a message. Authorities said the suspect may have a grievance related to the Jehovah's Witness community. The suspect also may have altered their appearance since the arsons began.

"We take events at houses of worship very seriously and are appealing to those who live in and around Thurston and the surrounding counties to partner with us in protecting their communities in this investigation," Seattle AFT agent Derek Pleasant said.

No injuries have been reported in any of the incidents, but "it is inevitable that innocent people will be injured or killed if these incidents go unchecked," Pleasant said.

Anyone with information on the fires of the shooting should call ATF's toll-free hotline at 888-ATF-TIPS, Crime Stoppers of South Sound at 1-800-222-TIPS, or the Arson Alarm Foundation at 1-800-55-ARSON.