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Man arrested in string of St. Louis church fires

By JIM SALTER
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Police arrested a 35-year-old black man suspected of setting fires at several predominantly African-American St. Louis-area churches that spurred a hate-crime investigation.

Police spokeswoman Schron Jackson said the man was taken into custody Thursday for the fires that broke out Oct. 8 to Oct. 22. She did not disclose the suspect's name or a motive.

Five of the fires were in St. Louis and two in nearby Jennings. All seven were within a few miles of each other. Five of the churches have predominantly black congregations, one is racially mixed, and one is mostly white.

A spokeswoman for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said the case is under review and no charges had been filed as of midday. Messages seeking comment from St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch were not immediately returned.

Police and fire officials confirmed earlier this month that the possibility of a hate crime - either for racial or religious reasons - was being looked at.

Msgr. Robert J. Gettinger of St. Augustine Catholic Church, damaged in a fire on Oct. 14, said he and his congregation of about 300 families, most of them black, are pleased that the suspect is off the street.

"There was a fear in a lot of people," Gettinger said, adding that he was hopeful the suspect would get professional help.

The region is still recovering from the events surrounding last year's police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, and a grand jury's subsequent decision not to charge the officer who shot him. Brown was black and unarmed when he was shot by white Darren Wilson in a case that helped spur the national "Black Lives Matter" movement, and it renewed concern about the treatment of minorities in the St. Louis region.

Most of the fires occurred in the overnight hours when churches were unoccupied, though Gettinger said the fire at his church broke out around 5 p.m., while he was working.

No one was hurt in any of the incidents.

In all seven fires, the front doors were ignited. Damage was mostly minimal, but one church, New Life Missionary Baptist Church, was so badly damaged that the pastor, David Triggs, wasn't certain if the congregation would rebuild or move.

The churches represented several denominations - two Catholic, two Baptist, one Lutheran, one Church of Christ and one non-denominational..

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