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Officials Still Have No Suspects In A Rash Of Arson Attacks Targeting Jehovah's Witnesses In Washington

A fire that destroyed a Kingdom Hall on Friday was declared an arson. Officials said it is the fifth attack since March that has targeted Jehovah's Witnesses in Washington state.

Posted on December 10, 2018, at 2:35 a.m. ET

Thurston County Sheriff / Via Facebook: thurston.countysheriff

A fire that ignited Friday at a place of worship for Jehovah's Witnesses in Washington has been declared an arson, marking the state's fifth attack against the religious denomination so far this year.

Authorities in Thurston County, Washington, responded to the latest fire, at a Kingdom Hall in Lacey, in the predawn hours Friday, but arrived too late to save the worship center, which was destroyed after the building's roof collapsed.

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled soon after that the blaze was started intentionally. According to the Washington Post, the agency has said that the fire fits the pattern of the four other arson attacks targeting Jehovah's Witness places of worship in the area this year.

The destroyed Kingdom Hall in Lacey, Washington.
King5 / Via king5.com

The destroyed Kingdom Hall in Lacey, Washington.

All five of the attacks have occurred at Kingdom Halls โ€” the name Jehovah's Witnesses use for their houses of worship โ€” in Thurston County, which is located about 60 miles south of Seattle and has a population of 280,000.

The rash of arsons โ€” as well as another incident involving gunfire at a Kingdom Hall โ€” has baffled local and state investigators, who say they have not yet identified any suspects or potential motives.

"The first reaction is that it makes you feel really ill about somebody who has some sort of animosity towards any religion โ€” let alone a Jehovah's Witness of Kingdom Hall," Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said at a press conference Friday.

The Kingdom Hall that was targeted in Yelm, Washington.
Thurston County-Sheriff / Via Facebook: thurston.countysheriff

The Kingdom Hall that was targeted in Yelm, Washington.

The attacks began nine months ago, on March 19, when two fires started within minutes of each other: first at a Kingdom Hall in Olympia and, soon after, at a Kingdom Hall in Tumwater, about 3 miles away. The damage from both incidents was minor, according to the ATF's Seattle Division.

The Kingdom Hall in Olympia was targeted again on July 3, in an arson attack that destroyed the building.

Then, on Aug. 8, a Kingdom Hall in Yelm was set on fire in another apparent arson. A package made to look like a bomb was also found at the site, which was not occupied at the time, according to King5. The same Kingdom Hall had been the target of another attack months earlier, on May 15, when multiple rounds of gunfire were shot at the building.

Surveillance footage from the Olympia and Tumwater Kingdom Halls and from a store in Tumwater was released by the ATF over the summer in hopes of identifying a person of interest. The agency has offered a $36,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest.

"We are still looking for the person, weโ€™re actively looking to solve the previous crimes, and weโ€™re also looking for citizens to come forward with any information they might have,โ€ Assistant Special Agent Jonathan Blais of Seattle's ATF said Friday, according to local Fox news affiliate Q13.

BuzzFeed News has reached out to ATF and the Thurston County Sheriff's Office for more details about the investigation.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee condemned the attacks on Twitter Friday.

"The freedom to worship is a right that should be protected for every person in our country," he wrote. "Our thoughts are with the members of our community affected by this abhorrent act."

Dan Woollett, a Jehovah's Witness minister who helped build the Kingdom Hall in Lacey in 1976, said Friday that the fire was "devastating for the whole congregation."

"Itโ€™s devastating for sure but, you know, itโ€™s just a building. Everybodyโ€™s safe and thatโ€™s the important thing," he added.

A denomination of Christianity that started in the 1870s, Jehovah's Witnesses are perhaps best known for going door-to-door to share religious writings and beliefs. Just under 1% of the US population identify as Jehovah's Witnesses, including 2% of Washington residents, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center.

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