CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - A homeless man has been charged with the arson of the Cape Girardeau Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday, April 18.
Christopher Pritchard, 45, was charged with the enhanced hate crime of property damage in the first degree, arson in the second degree, burglary in the second degree and felony stealing.
Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Welker said Pritchard was charged with a hate crime because he was “knowingly motivated to do so by reason of a motive related to the religion of the people who worship at the Church of Latter Day Saints.”
According to court documents, a report was made to the sheriff’s office on Friday that Pritchard had threatened to bash in the head of the Church Bishop “with a brick” and to “burn the church down.”
The church had requested extra patrol for the house of worship located at 1048 West Cape Rock Drive in Cape Girardeau.
At approximately 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, court documents state that a couple at an apartment building saw smoke coming from the church and that they also saw a man with a backpack watching the smoke before fire crews arrived.
As crews continued to battle the fire, a couple driving in the area flagged down a sheriff’s deputy and stated they had seen a suspicious man with a backpack walking on County Road 643.
The description of the man was reportedly the same as the man the previous couple said was watching smoke from the church.
The deputy stated he found the same man walking on Highway 177 and learned he was Christopher Pritchard.
He was taken to the sheriff’s office to talk to detectives.
According to court documents, Pritchard admitted to make threats against the church and the Bishop, but denied going into the church or setting it on fire.
Investigators searched through Pritchard’s backpack and reported finding several items belonging to the church valued at $1,049.99.
Pritchard was booked into the Cape Girardeau County Jail without bond.
He appeared before a Cape Girardeau County judge on Monday afternoon.
He waived his right to counsel and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for May 18.
We heard from Pritchard’s sister on Monday evening.
She said she disagreed with the fire being called a hate crime. She said she and her brother were raised in the Church of Latter-day Saints.
His sister said Pritchard has been homeless for two years and suffers from a mental illness.
When the first crews arrived to the church shortly after 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, heavy smoke could be seen coming from the building.
An additional ladder truck and crews from area fire departments were called in to assist.
The building was engulfed in flames about 15 minutes later.
According to Cape Girardeau Fire Chief Randy Morris, defensive operations were initiated after fire vented through the roof.
The church is considered a complete loss.
The State Fire Marshal is investigating the fire.
All Cape Girardeau County Fire Departments and crews with the East County Fire Protection District remained on the scene overnight.
Fire crews said they expected it would take all day Monday for the flames to die down.
Church officials said no one was inside the church at the time of the fire.
“We’re glad that no one was in there, that no one was hurt,” said Stake President of the Latter-day Saints Kevin Dickson. “We’ve certainly seen these things happen before to churches and buildings. We’re just grateful that no one was hurt because we can rebuild.”
Some neighbors who live near the church said they woke up to the sound of sirens and then saw the huge flames.
“I had taken my dogs outside and I heard sirens all over the place, and I was praying that nothing was close but, you know, it doesn’t always work out that way,” said Diana Palmer.
No one was hurt battling the fire.
Due to the lack of fire hydrants in the area, firefighters had to use water tankers to bring water to the scene in order to battle the blaze.
The nearest fire hydrant was about a quarter-mile from the scene, near Highway 177.
Crews from Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Gordonville, Delta, Scott City and East County Fire Protection District responded to the call.
”We will have a building again,” Stake President Kevin Dickson said.
“I’m just grateful that no one was in there, it’s a building, a building we can rebuild. The church is the people,” Dickson said.
So right now, Dickson is looking for a place for his people to hold services.
“We’ll look to see if perhaps there’s another church that would let us meet there or perhaps there’s another facility that we can rent in the short term until we’re able to rebuild,” he said.
He said offers of help and support are pouring in from the community.
“They’ve shared with us their well-wishes and their desire to help and support us,” he said.
With that support, Dickson said they’re ready to move forward.
“That’s what’s important to us now. Building up to the future,” Dickson said
Dickson said the church is fully insured so coming up with the money to rebuild won’t be a problem.