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Task Force Joins Probe of Fires at Houses of Worship

Sprinklers extinguish a blaze at an Encino synagogue in the fourth such incident in 11 days.

May 08, 2003|Richard Fausset and Li Fellers | Times Staff Writers

A fire at a Ventura Boulevard synagogue early Wednesday was the fourth to strike houses of worship in Encino, starting with a Presbyterian church 11 days before and including an Iranian synagogue and a Bahai community center.

The fire, possibly ignited by a pedestrian hurling a Molotov cocktail, at the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue was extinguished by automatic sprinklers, officials said.

Although damage has been relatively small, the fires have triggered a hate-crime and arson investigation by federal and local officials and have left the upscale neighborhood on edge.

"We're afraid in the sense that everybody's looking over their shoulder," said the Rev. Donald Dallmann of Encino's Bethel Lutheran Church. "But obviously you can't sit in front of a church with a tank 24 hours a day to prevent it."

Ringed by law enforcement officials, Mayor James K. Hahn told a news conference Wednesday that authorities would find out who is responsible.

"We cannot tolerate this and we will do everything in our power to stop it," Hahn said. "These are acts of terror, acts of hatred that threaten to tear at the fabric of our community."

In investigating the four fires as hate crimes, law enforcement officials have been joined by the House of Worship Task Force, a group created in 1996 after a series of church fires in the southeast United States. The task force is composed of fire and police investigators and federal law enforcement agents from the area.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief William Bamattre said nearly 100 investigators would be assigned to the task force. LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said his department would commit 65 detectives.

So far, the fires are linked in two ways. All were set at houses of worship along a three-mile corridor in Encino; and liquid accelerants -- which enhance a material's flammability -- were found at each site, said Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Franco. Not all the liquids were the same, he said.

The first fire was discovered about 1 a.m. April 26 at the First Presbyterian Church of Encino on Balboa Boulevard. The next two broke out Monday -- the first at 11 a.m. at the Bahai Faith Community Center in the 4800 block of Genesta Avenue, and the second at 10 p.m. at the Iranian Synagogue in the 18000 block of Ventura Boulevard.

At the First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Janell Tibbetts said plans are underway to increase security at the church. "As I am sure that all the other churches in the area are looking into security measures, we are as well," said Tibbetts, the church's associate pastor.

The Rev. Malcolm Laing said the fire caused $75,000 to $100,000 in damage to the church.

The fire at the Bahai center was devastating to its worshipers, who moved to the United States to escape persecution, said Randolph Dobbs, secretary of the spiritual assembly of the Bahais of Los Angeles.

"It resonated in a different way when they found out their center had been attacked," said Dobbs. He said that he could not estimate the damage to the center but that two main doors to the structure looked like "two big bricks of charcoal" and a number of windows had been broken.

At the Iranian synagogue, where a fire caused minor damage to the roof, member Benny Manesh said the congregation would meet next week to discuss whether security could be improved. "But what can we do?" he said. "Have someone sleep inside? It's impossible."

Early Morning Fire

Firefighters were summoned to Valley Beth Shalom at 6:39 a.m. Wednesday after sprinklers in the sanctuary tripped an alarm, said Battalion Chief Rob Willcox. They arrived to find the sprinklers had doused the flames, he said.

The fire started in the main hall used for services, but did not reach the sacred Torah scrolls. The automatic sprinklers caused the most damage, Willcox said.

At the time of the attack, about seven or eight custodians were on duty, said Noemi Lasky, the temple's maintenance engineer.

Maintenance man Carlos Crespin discovered the fire. "There was a lot of smoke," he said in Spanish. "At first I thought it was an electrical fire ... but then I smelled the gasoline."

The incendiary device made a baseball-size hole in the abstract-patterned stained-glass windows facing Ventura Boulevard. The device landed close to the Torah scrolls, which were quickly carried out by the janitorial staff, Lasky said.

The fire was set on Israel's independence day but is not believed to be connected to the holiday, officials said.

A Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman, Mary E. Grady, said firefighters heading to the scene found a man who said that he had seen a person across the street from the temple, and then had seen flames. Firefighters asked the man to wait while they investigated, Grady said, but when they returned he was gone.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss toured the synagogue Wednesday morning and said he saw what looked like the remains of a bottle.

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