A suspect has been arrested and charged with arson following a string of church fires this month in St. Louis, authorities announced Friday.
David Lopez Jackson, 35, faces two counts of arson in connection with two church fires, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said. Jackson remains a suspect in five other church fires, which are under active investigation.
“Hopefully, there are more charges coming,” Dotson said at a Friday news conference.
Authorities said the fires don’t appear to be the result of a hate crime or the targeting of a particular Christian denomination of ethnic group. Several of the churches that were attacked were predominantly African American, but at least two were not. Jackson is black, according to police.
Dotson said the motive is still unclear.
“Arson of any kind is disturbing,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said Friday. “It is especially disturbing when arson is directed at the very foundation of our community.”
The arsons began as the area was still reeling from the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to charge former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for pulling the trigger.
At the start, some assumed the arsonist was targeting African American churches. It made many remember the nine African American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., who were shot and killed — and weeks later, the churches that started burning across the South. However, at least one St. Louis church that was torched was mixed-race church and another — Shrine of St. Joseph Catholic Church — had a predominantly white congregation, police said.
Police said each arson started the same way, with the church’s front doors sprayed with accelerant and then set ablaze. The fires started Oct. 8 with Bethel Nondenominational Church in Jennings, a small town near Ferguson. Two days later, police said, nearby New Northside Missionary Baptist Church had been set on fire.
Soon churches in the city of St. Louis started burning.
Charges against Jackson stem from fires at New Life Missionary Baptist and Ebenezer Lutheran churches. He is being held on a $75,000 cash bond.
Surveillance footage shows Jackson’s car at the scene of the New Life Missionary Baptist Church fire, according to police. A gasoline cannister and thermos that “smelled like gasoline” was found in his car, Dotson said.
St. Augustine Catholic Church was in flames on Oct. 14, New Testament Church of Christ on Oct. 15, and then both New Life Missionary Baptist Church and Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Oct. 17.
In most cases, police said, the fires did not spread beyond the buildings’ front doors. New Life Missionary Baptist Church — recently renamed United Believers in Christ Ministries — was an exception. The church’s pastor and police said the flames crept through cracks and crannies, and spread through the building.
“There’s so much division among the body of believers. I think God is allowing this to happen to bring churches closer together so we can fight a spiritual battle,” the church’s pastor, David Triggs, had told The Washington Post. “The arsonist, he’s not my enemy. I forgave him the moment I pulled up to the burning church. I believe he is spiritually sick, and that’s the way we have to address this — by setting our differences aside and praying together.”
The seventh church, Shrine of St. Joseph Catholic Church, was found in flames Oct. 22.
For weeks, parishioners had been picking up the pieces, calling the arsons “destructive” and “disappointing,” and saying it “disturbs the heart.” But pastors said it was an opportunity to bring the church together.
“I don’t want people to become angry, hostile or lose our faith over this,” Triggs said. “Let’s pray together. Let’s stand together. Let’s fight this battle together.”