Multiple law enforcement agencies gathered Wednesday morning in Olympia to announce a reward for information regarding three arson fires 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. In addition, the Arson Alarm Foundation is offering a $10,000 reward and the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is offering $1,000 through South Sound Crime Stoppers for a total payout of $36,000.
Darek Pleasants, the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Seattle Field Division, appealed to the public for help locating those responsible.
“It is only a matter of time before one of these incidents escalates into an injury or fatality in our community,” he said at the news conference.
Pleasants said there is a person and vehicle of interest that could be connected 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 ruins.
“The walls are still standing but that’s about it,” Olympia Assistant Fire Chief Rob Bradley told The Olympian that morning.
A vehicle of interest, believed to be a 2017 Jeep Renegade, also was captured on surveillance video at about 12:50 a.m. that day at the Olympia location.
“It is imperative that law enforcement identify who they are and speak with them,” Pleasants said.
Olympia Kingdom Hall elder David Norman was among those who at Wednesday’s press 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 totally surprised by it after a previous attempt to start a fire there 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 on 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.”
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 targeted by an arsonist on March 19, but the fire that day 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.
Crews were dispatched to the Kingdom Hall in Tumwater at about 9 a.m. that same 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 when they call ATF at 1-888-ATF-TIPS, South Sound Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS or the Arson Alarm Foundation at 1-800-55A-RSON.