Man accused of setting fire to Midland church pleads not guilty

Staff writerSeptember 6, 2013 

Joshua Joseph Toves told Pierce County detectives he set three fires in the Midland area of Pierce County early Thursday morning, one of which destroyed Golgotha Baptist Church.

What he could not tell them was why.

"The defendant was not mad at anyone, and he did not have a good reason for starting the fires," Pierce County prosecutors wrote in charging documents. "The defendant had seen something like the fires on television before."

Prosecutors charged Toves, 30, with five felonies Friday: first-degree arson, second-degree burglary, attempted residential burglary and two counts of second-degree arson.

Court Commissioner Meagan Foley entered not guilty pleas on his behalf before ordering him to undergo a mental-health evaluation to determine whether he's competent to stand trial. He's being held without bail until that evaluation is completed.

Detectives reported that Toves occasionally talked nonsensically during their interviews with him and would "sometimes rub his face, laugh to himself and answer questions so quietly that he was hard to understand," court records show.

The fires broke out just after midnight, beginning with a vacant house on 18 Avenue East, court records show. Soon after there were reports of the church burning a few blocks away on Portland Avenue East followed shortly thereafter by complaints about a burning car, also on Portland Avenue.

A man matching Toves' description was seen in the vicinity of all three fires, including walking away from the church laughing, the documents show.

As firefighters were responding to the blazes, sheriff's deputies received a report from a nearby homeowner that a man, also matching Toves' description, had tried to break into his house.

Deputies investigating that call came across Toves walking quickly in the 8100 block of 14th Avenue East and arrested him. They noticed he smelled of smoke and that his coat appeared to be burned, court records show.

They took him to the South Hill precinct for questioning.

He allegedly admitted setting fire to the vacant house first, then the church then the car.

Toves told detectives he broke into the church and gathered paper, plastic and a picture frame together and set it ablaze. He said he'd never been in the church before.

Toves said he used WD-40 like a flamethrower to ignite the car, the records show.

Toves told detectives he lives in Vancouver, Wash., and had traveled to Pierce County to look for work.

The church sustained nearly $1 million in damage.

The Rev. Pavel Sandu stood outside his gutted church in Midland Friday and said he will forgive whoever is responsible for the suspected arson fire.

“On the cross, Christ gave his example,” Sandu said. He quoted the words of Jesus: “‘God forgive them.’”

Sandu said he will encourage his congregation when it meets Sunday at another church building to forgive as well.

More than 300 people attend services on a typical Sunday at Golgotha Baptist Church. The 10-year-old congregation is made up of immigrants from Moldova and services are in their native tongue.

Sandu said the church building was insured. But Sandu said he didn’t know how much of the loss the policy will cover or if the congregation will be able to rebuild.

After the church caretaker called him early Thursday, Sandu drove to the church, expecting to see a small fire. Sandu said he could see the blaze was much worse before he arrived.

He said the fire has “devastated me and everybody here.”





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