Tony McMiller, 13, helps carry chairs outside on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, at the New Life Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, so that parishioners could sit in the yard. The church was damaged by an arson fire on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, so the service was held outside. Photo by J.B. Forbes, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Suspect charged with setting two in the string of seven St. Louis area church fires


ST. LOUIS —David Lopez Jackson, 35, was charged Friday (Oct. 30) with setting two in a string of seven church fires this month, but authorities say they don’t know the motive.

The charges were two counts of second-degree arson. Jackson was being held in lieu of $75,000 bail, according to court documents.

Forensic evidence linked him to the fire on Oct. 18 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church; video of his car near New Life Missionary Baptist Church, links him to the fire there on Oct. 17, police Chief Sam Dotson said. Both churches are in the city.

A container of gasoline and a Thermos bottle that smelled of gasoline were found in his car, Dotson said.

Asked about a motive, Dotson said, “We’re still trying to understand that.”

Dotson did not specifically accuse Jackson of the other church fires but said he was a suspect and suggested that further investigation might result in additional charges for additional crimes.

Although the locations of the fires in predominantly African-American neighborhoods gave rise to speculation that the motive might be race-related, Jackson is black.

He also is reported to be suspected of trying to burn a relative’s home in Jennings, a source said. Police responded to a call for an attempted arson there shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday. St. Louis County police responded to the same location for a report of a “suspicious odor” on Oct. 24.

The Jennings address, which is listed as Jackson’s home in some court records and is where he was arrested, is in the area of the first six fires — about two blocks from the closest.

 Jackson’s criminal record dates to 1998, when he was arrested and charged with unlawful use of a weapon. He has also been charged with domestic assault, burglary, drug-related crimes, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

Court records indicate that he was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation, and an order of protection was sought against him to stay out of the city’s Wells Goodfellow neighborhood in 2009.

In August 2014, Jackson admitted to kicking in the back door of a home and stealing two lanterns, according to court documents.

He most recently pleaded guilty in January of first-degree property damage and assaulting a police officer in St. Louis stemming from an incident in October 2014. Jackson admitted breaking multiple windows at the Crocodile Lounge by throwing rocks at them, according to court documents. Judge Edward Sweeney sentenced him to 120 days of “shock time” in jail, which he served from March through June, to be followed by four years of supervised probation.

Police said Jackson had become a suspect before the seventh fire, in downtown St. Louis, miles from the others, given his criminal record and proximity to most of the fire scenes.

The string of fires, many of which did minimal damage, drew attention of local and federal investigators.

The Rev. Robert Gettinger, of St. Augustine Catholic Church, said news of an arrest was a relief.

“We pray for the person who has done this. It seems to be mentally off-balance behavior,” Gettinger said.

The Rev. Roderick K. Burton, of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings, said the congregation was waiting to repair its doors after the Oct. 10 fire until a suspect was in custody. Church members did not want the community to forget that an arsonist was on the loose, he said.

On a message board on the front lawn of the church, scripture often is quoted. Burton decided the message on the board should be “church fires must stop” after New Northside was struck Oct. 10.

“I’m looking forward to changing the sign to ‘church fires have stopped,’ ” Burton said. He said he was always confident the culprit would be caught.

“I feel like it’s an answer to prayer. The whole metropolitan area can breathe a sigh of relief. We’re very thankful that the fires didn’t hurt anyone physically. Everyone will be very interested in finding out the motivation.”

St. Augustine was damaged Oct. 14, the third church targeted by arson. The other fires happened Oct. 8 at the Bethel Nondenominational Church in Jennings; Oct. 15 at the New Testament Church of Christ in St. Louis; and Oct. 22 at the Shrine of St. Joseph.

The final fire, at the historic shrine downtown, appeared to break the arsonist’s geographical pattern.

The variety of denominations and types of structures targeted included Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and nondenominational congregations — four on the north side of St. Louis and two in Jennings. They ranged from the relatively grandiose historic brick structures of St. Augustine Catholic Church and Ebenezer Lutheran Church to the modest storefront used by the New Testament Church of Christ.

The first six churches were within about five miles of each other, and sustained varying levels of damage from fires set at their front doors from Oct. 8 to 18. Mainly, the damage was contained. Police presumed they were the work of the same person or people.

The fires were small blazes set against the exterior doors, but in some cases spread.

(Doug Moore and Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.)

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