Who's setting fires to the churches of Minnesota?

The historic Darling Church near Little Falls was completely destroyed by arson two months ago.

The historic Darling Church near Little Falls was completely destroyed by arson two months ago. Minnesota State Fire Marshal

There have been 13 church arsons in Minnesota since 2012. Of those, only five have been solved.

This week, the Department of Public Safety is renewing its call for tips that could help inspectors solve mystery arsons that caused hundreds of thousands in damage.

“Churches may be targeted because they are unoccupied for long periods of time and many are located in rural, less populated areas,” says Jim Iammatteo, the State Fire Marshal’s chief investigator. “It may not matter to someone that the building is a church, rather that it is an easy target. Someone may also target a church for religious reasons, of course.”

The nine cases that remain open don’t seem to be connected because investigators haven’t discovered any patterns left behind, Iammatteo says. However, cases where a culprit has been cornered reveal common motives, with thrill-seeking, revenge, and bored kids topping the list.

In April, a former member of the Church of Scientology in St. Paul allegedly walked into a reading room, doused books in gasoline, and set a fire in front of a witness. According to police, the suspect had previously been kicked out of the church for bad behavior.

In 2014, a teenager was caught on camera entering the Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids while it was empty. He found some lighters and matches on a table, picked them up, and started lighting pews on fire, causing $10,000 worth of damage.

“He was just bored. He had nothing else to do,” says Coon Rapids Fire Inspector Todd Williams.

The teen was ordered to attend a program for kids caught playing with fire, and forced to watch videos about not playing with matches. He hasn't been implicated in another arson since.

That same year, a St. Paul man set fire to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. He wasn’t a member of the congregation, but would stop by for help finding a job. When valuables began disappearing, the pastor suspected the man and banned him from the church. He later admitted returning in the early morning to set fire to the pastor’s office.

Neighbors helped solve that case when they saw the suspect head toward St. Mark’s shortly before the fire.

“People describing a vehicle that drove by at a certain time, information about a fire in someone’s home, a conversation someone had with a neighbor 10 years ago,” theses are the types of tips that have helped crack cases in the past, Iammatteo says. “One tip could make all the difference.”

Unsolved church arsons since 2012:

• Darling Historic Church on March 24, 2017, in Little Falls
• St. Mary’s Catholic Church on March 11, 2016, in Melrose
• Abandoned church on Aug. 22, 2016, in Deer Creek
• Church, Inc., building on Feb. 15, 2016, in St. Paul
• Bethany Lutheran Church on June 13, 2014, in Minneapolis
• Open Arms Assembly of God on Sept. 6, 2014, in St. Paul
• Community Covenant Church on July 11, 2013, in Minneapolis
• Faith Baptist Church on Aug. 26, 2013, in St. Paul
• St. Elizabeth Catholic Church on May 28, 2012, in Isanti