At first, the workers at an Ogden chapel saw the broken pipes and shattered windows. Then, they smelled smoke.
They found a toy box on fire, according to court documents. After dousing the blaze, a fire marshal and an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called. They confirmed the fire had been intentionally set.
Arsonists have burned meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from New Mexico to New Zealand this year. It’s unclear whether that is unusual — government data on the subject is vague — but the Salt Lake City-based faith has called it a “growing trend.”
Utah’s fire marshal recorded seven fires of all types at Latter-day Saint buildings from the start of 2017 through July 31 of this year. A review of news reports indicates the number is higher.
State Fire Marshal Coy Porter said those numbers are based on what individual fire departments submit to a national reporting system but noted there can be some delay in the submissions. Recent suspected cases of arson that damaged Latter-day Saint meetinghouses in Orem and Cottonwood Heights for example, do not appear on the list.
Nationwide, the ATF recorded 11 fires of all types at Latter-day Saint buildings from the start of 2015 to about Sept. 1 of this year. The ATF also recorded one bombing — or an explosion of some type — at a Latter-day Saint building in 2016.
Investigators can’t be sure how many of this year’s fires — including at a stake center (a larger, regional meetinghouse) under construction in St. George that ignited in January — are arson.
Then there are cases like the Logandale, Nev., stake center, which never actually caught fire and may not go into any arson tabulations.
Last month, Tyler M. Frazier, 41, according to an arrest report, planned to pour perhaps 4 gallons of kerosene on the Logandale stake center’s roof and ignite it. The plan failed, the arrest report says, because Frazier, who also told detectives he had been drinking beer at the time, couldn’t climb a tree high enough to jump onto the roof.
If the Utah-based faith itself has statistics, it isn’t making them public. Church spokeswoman Irene Caso declined requests to share any data with The Salt Lake Tribune or to make someone at church headquarters available to talk about the issue.
"Religious buildings are intended to be places of gathering and worship,” Caso said, “so we are especially concerned when they become the targets of violence or vandalism. These incidents are tragedies for those who gather and worship there and represent a significant cost to the faith communities that are impacted.
“Several of our chapels have been affected by this growing trend in the last year. When one of our buildings is damaged, we rely on law enforcement and the legal system to fill their roles to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes, and we support their efforts to do so."
Fires at houses of worship of all faiths are almost common events in the United States. A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found 4,705 reported fires over 20 years. Of those, 51% had been ruled intentional. That was far higher than the arson rates for residential and nonresidential building fires.
Much of Pew’s research was based on data collected under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act. Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the legislation after a series of arsons at black churches. Black churches have been targets for arson since Jim Crow. As recently as this spring, three black churches in the Southeast were burned.
In Utah, the LDS Church is the dominant religious institution and influences social life and politics. There is no indication its meetinghouses become targets because of the faith’s clout in the state. But arson has been a fact of life for Latter-day Saints since at least 1833, when both church members and the settlers who opposed them in Jackson County, Mo., burned one another’s homes and businesses in what became known as the Missouri Mormon War. In more recent times, the flame-bearing culprits have been difficult to categorize.
Many studies have found the majority of all arsons are ignited by juveniles, and Utah kids have been suspected in setting some fires at Latter-day Saint churches. In 2013, three teens were apprehended after setting fire to a meetinghouse in Magna. The blaze caused an estimated $500,000 damage.
Rooted in resentment
Some arsonists seem to have a grudge against the church; others don’t. In the Logandale case, the arrest report, first obtained by the Moapa Valley Progress, says Frazier told detectives he was baptized into the church as a child but hadn’t practiced in years. Frazier, who lived in Utah much of his life, blamed the church for his mother dying by suicide, detectives wrote.
Frazier also didn’t like that the stake center was across the street from a high school.
“He feels that kids are pressured with these churches in close proximity to the schools,” a police officer wrote. “He feels he felt that growing up.”
On Sept. 6, a grand jury in Nevada’s Clark County, according to a court docket, indicted Frazier on three felonies: attempt to commit an act of terrorism, manufacturing or possessing an incendiary device and arson with a hate crime enhancement. The docket does not show Frazier has entered a plea.
It is more of a mystery why Jacob Lowenstein, 28, in March of this year burned two Latter-day Saint buildings in New Zealand — a study building in Upper Riccarton and a meetinghouse in Greymouth. The study building was damaged and the meetinghouse destroyed, according to the New Zealand news outlet Stuff, which also reported the cost to the church was about $850,000 in U.S. dollars
A judge in June sentenced Lowenstein, 28, to almost seven years in jail. After the sentencing, his mother, Katherine Payne, told Stuff that the family had never been part of the LDS Church.
"It is a random, sad accident that that tosser went and did what he did,” Payne said. “There is nothing about the Mormons, that's just a really sad thing."
Michael D. Averett, the suspect in the Ogden arson, attended an LDS Church, and his own lay leaders are trying to figure out why he would have wanted to damage a meetinghouse.
On June 28 of this year, Averett, then 18, and a juvenile entered the meetinghouse at 550 E. 900 North. Workers investigating the damage found Averett and a juvenile still inside, court records say.
In an interview with the ATF, those records say, Averett admitted to breaking fixtures and windows.
“Additionally,” a probable cause statement filed with the court says, “Michael admitted to using flammable sources to ignite multiple fires within the church in multiple areas.
“… Michael admitted one specific fire was set with an aerosol can, combustible paper materials, and a lighter. This fire spread quickly, and caused extensive fire, water and smoke damage.”
Averett has been charged in state court in Ogden with arson, burglary and criminal mischief. The arson charge carries up to 15 years in prison. Averett has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer declined to comment on the case.
At least two people are supporting Averett — his bishop and elders quorum president from Averett’s ward in Taylorsville. Both men already have written letters to the judge to say they don’t think Averett was seeking any revenge against church.
Jess Hansen, the elders quorum president, said in an interview that he has known Averett since he was a child.
“I don’t see that he falls into any kind of a situation where you would have any kind of animosity or hate or malice toward the church," Hansen said. "I really think it’s just kind of a kid not using his brain very well.”
Averett’s next court appearance is Wednesday.
Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said the juvenile suspect recently pleaded guilty to arson and is awaiting sentencing. The fires and vandalism amounted to $200,000 in damage, Allred said.
There are no suspects in the fires earlier this year at Latter-day Saint buildings in St. George and Farmington, N.M. In both cases, the ATF has offered $5,000 rewards for information leading to arrests and convictions.
In the New Mexico case, an alarm company detected a fire early on June 1, according to the ATF news release. Firefighters snuffed the blaze, but it caused significant damage. Investigators determined it was arson.
It is less clear what happened in St. George, where early on Jan. 26 a nearly completed stake center caught fire. Investigators suspected arson, but St. George police spokeswoman Tiffany Atkin said in a recent interview that the blaze hasn’t yet been categorized.
The fire started on the exterior of a brick wall with no electricity, Atkin said. A garbage can and some other items were stacked along the wall. Testing for an accelerant was inconclusive, Atkin said.
Police had asked for help finding a suspicious car seen driving away, but it was later determined that vehicle contained security personnel from a nearby hospital, Atkin said. There are no suspects at this time.