A juvenile male has been arrested in connection with an early-morning fire that destroyed a church on North Lehmberg Road in East Columbus, as well as the burglary of two other nearby churches.
Authorities plan to charge the juvenile, whose identity they have not yet released, as an adult with a count of arson and three counts of burglary.
First Independent Methodist Church was destroyed by a fire investigators believe the juvenile set around 1:35 a.m. Monday. Columbus Fire and Rescue Chief Martin Andrews said the fire was called in at 1:40, with firefighters arriving a few minutes later.
Andrews said 15 firefighters responded and had the fire contained in roughly 90 minutes. All structures were ruled as total losses as investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and CFR continued to sort through the charred rubble late into the day Monday to collect evidence.
Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton credited anonymous tips for helping identify the suspect.
“We started getting tips around 7 this morning, which led to a suspect being identified and arrested,” Shelton said Monday afternoon.
During the investigation, the juvenile was linked to two burglary incidents at Calvary Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church on Sunday, both of which are also located on North Lehmberg Road not far from the scene of the fire.
“The suspect lived in this area, so he would have been familiar with these churches,” said Shelton, who said some items stolen from the churches were recovered when officers executed a search at the suspect’s residence.
Andrews said suspicions about the cause of the fire came almost immediately, noting the church buildings were fully engaged in flames almost as soon as the initial call came in. In response, a firefighter was stationed at the scene until investigators from the state fire marshal office arrived in order to preserve the chain of evidence in the event of a ruling of arson and a subsequent trial.
“It (North Lehmberg) is a busy street, so normally a passerby will notice smoke and make the call,” Andrews said. “But when our firefighters got there just a few minutes after the call, the fire and the fire load were pretty advanced.”
Another factor put Andrews on alert.
“On Sunday morning, we had another fire at 10th Avenue Church of Christ,” Andrews said. “So that was on our mind. We didn’t know if that fire was related to this one at the time.”
Shelton said that fire, where a church van, a bus and an outbuilding were damaged, was not related to Monday’s fire.
“That investigation is moving along,” Shelton said. “There was some video and we have a suspect identified. We hope to make an arrest in a day or two.”
Citing the juvenile status of the suspect in Monday’s fire, Shelton offered little information on him. Although Shelton declined to say if the suspect has confessed to the crime, it appears he did offer some information only the perpetrator would know.
“The things that our suspect told us about where the fire started were right in line with what the state fire marshal investigator and my fire marshal were saying,” Andrews said. “The fire started in the sanctuary.”
Gary Shelton, who has been pastor at the church for a little more than 10 years, said the church had resumed in-person services a little more than 12 hours before the fire.
“It was the first time we went back into the sanctuary,” he said. “There were only a few of us here, because of COVID and some other illnesses, but we felt like good things were about to start happening and regardless of the intentions of whoever did this, they are.”
The pastor said he would hold Sunday service somewhere on the church grounds.
“Then we’ll decide what we are going to do,” he said.
The suspect is currently in custody at the Lowndes County Juvenile Detention Center.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]