While arson investigators sift through the charred evidence left after 11 churches were set ablaze in less than a month, one minister fears it may be the work of someone who's "angry at God."
Those struck include the historic Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Gainesville, built in 1904 and destroyed last month in a blaze that did $2 million in damage.The largest cluster of fires has been in this lakeside community of 24,000 in central Florida, where six churches were hit in one week this month.
Inman Park Baptist Church, the most heavily hit church here, suffered $20,000 in damage when a blaze broke out in the balcony after Sunday services. Now, the church is closed to everyone but the sandblasters who are removing smoke damage.
"This is almost too systematic to be the work of a kid or young person," said the Rev. Randy Elrod, the pastor. "Whoever did it went up and down the blocks, hitting one at a time."
The Rev. Orville Andersen, pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, has a bigger concern.
"I can't think of any reason for torching churches of different denominations except for the fact that someone is angry at God," Andersen said.
At his church, a fire was set in a restroom.
Though no one has been injured in the fires, the state called the situation unprecedented and formed a Church-Arson Task Force. The group is studying all 11 fires since Jan. 15, plus one unsolved 1990 church arson in Jackson County near the Alabama state line.
No arrests have been made, and officials admit they're stumped for leads. Eight of the fires were confirmed to have been set, investigators said, and arson is suspected in the rest.
Debris is being tested at a state laboratory to determine the causes. Arson investigators won't disclose results so far, saying they fear it would jeopardize their inquiry.
"It's alarming," said Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for state Fire Marshall Tom Gallagher. "We don't know yet if there is a pattern that would link these together."
The probe stretches beyond Florida. Investigators quietly are looking into reports of similar occurrences in the Midwest and southern Georgia. But they won't talk about it or pinpoint the areas.