Local and federal authorities are investigating a string of acts of violence against Jehovah’s Witness houses of worship in Washington state ― including multiple suspected arsons.
The latest attack gutted a Jehovah’s Witness building in the city of Lacey, near Olympia. The fire reportedly broke out close to 4 a.m. on Friday. No injuries were reported, but the building was deemed a total loss, according to The Olympian.
The Seattle division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has determined that the blaze was due to arson.
The fire in Lacey brings the total number of attacks in Thurston County against Jehovah’s Witness centers, called kingdom halls, to six this year, KING-TV reports. In March, arson caused minor damage at kingdom halls in Tumwater and Olympia. Four months later, a blaze destroyed the Olympia worship space. In August investigators discovered a fake bomb at a kingdom hall in Yelm, according to KING-TV. The incident was determined to be an attempted arson.
In May someone shot about 35 rifle rounds into the Yelm center, causing more than $10,000 in property damage, The Associated Press reports.
Jason Chudy, a spokesperson for the ATF’s Seattle field division, told HuffPost that the organization believes all the incidents could be related. The attacks were probably “meant to send a message,” he said.
“We believe that the suspect or suspects has or have a grievance related to the Jehovah’s Witness community, or about another issue they think is important,” he wrote in an email. “Before these fires, the person or persons involved are likely to have shared these strong feelings with others through comments and conversation.”
Chudy said the ATF also believes that the suspect or suspects may have exhibited changes in behavior in the hours, days, weeks or months since the fires, including unexplained injuries, changes in normal routines and dramatic and unexplained altering of physical appearance.
The ATF is investigating the incidents, along with Thurston County police. Investigators are offering $36,000 in combined rewards for information that leads to a suspect’s capture.
During a press conference on Friday, Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza urged the public to call in with tips.
“It makes you feel really ill,” he said about the incidents. “How frustrating is it that people who find a solemn place of worship, and now it’s being destroyed?”
Dan Woollett, a member of the kingdom hall in Lacey, told KOMO News that the important thing is that congregants are safe.
“It’s just a building ― buildings can be replaced,” he said. “Things can be redone. So we just move ahead with the ministry that we have that we’re involved with.”
David Semonian, a U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, told HuffPost that Washington state is home to more than 33,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who gather in about 163 kingdom halls. He said he hoped the suspect or suspects are apprehended before someone gets hurt.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses work hard to be a force for good in their community, so violent acts like this are difficult to comprehend,” Semonian wrote in an emailed statement. “Whatever the motive there is no justification for burning down places of worship that could result in innocent loss of life.”
This article has been updated with Semonian’s comments.