D.C. police have charged a New York man with arson in connection with a fire at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington that severely damaged one of the most renowned organs in the area.
Stephen Patrick Empson, 44, of Manhattan was was charged with setting the fire inside the Episcopal church at 1317 G St. NW Wednesday night and is being held on $3,000 bond. Empson told police and court officials that he is pastor of a church in New York, but gave conflicting descriptions of what church it is, according to interviews with police officials.
The fire caused about $50,000 damage to the keyboard of the organ, church officials said, and has forced the cancellation of a recital scheduled for Sunday honoring Baron Flor Peeters, a leading Belgian composer.
The fire started when a cloth covering the organ's console, consisting of three keyboards, was set afire, said the Rev. Dr. Edgar Romig, the church's pastor. The fire destroyed the three keyboards, their ivory keys and the organ's wooden frame, Romig said.
Along with the organs at the Kennedy Center and the Washington Cathedral, the Church of the Epiphany's organ, worth an estimated $300,000, is considered among the finest in the Washington area, church officials said. The damaged organ can be restored, they said, but will be out of commission for a time.
Police could provide no motive for the alleged arson.
The fire occurred just after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday as members of the Woolly Mammoth theater group were preparing to present Harold Pinter's "The Hothouse" in the parish hall adjacent to the church, Romig said.
Moments later a cast member, John Connole, entered the church looking for small platforms for the play, and spotted the fire. He called for a custodian, and got the blaze under control using a fire extinguisher, said Sgt. Walt Franek of the D.C. police arson squad.
After being told of the fire, the church's custodian, Peter Nails, recalled seeing a stranger in the church several minutes before, police said.
Nails ran out the door, spotted a man walking about a block away, pursued and confronted him at 13th and G streets NW, Franek said. As the two argued, Nails flagged down a passing police cruiser, and the man was taken into custody.
After his arrest, Empson told officers that he was a Catholic priest in New York, Franek said.
Later, police said, Empson told them that he is connected with what he identified as a "French Orthodox church" in the Bronx. Empson said he founded the church less than a year ago, and that it has up to six members. Police officials said they confirmed with church members in New York that he is pastor of a church there.
Meanwhile, Church of the Epiphany officials bemoaned the destruction of their cherished organ. "We're trying to determine whether the console can be salvaged," Romig said. "The keys are all gone."