Investigators with the Pima County Sheriff's Department said they have begun to look at a series of arson fires at churches in the Northwest as hate crimes.
"There are certain things this department will not and cannot tolerate, and one of those is hate crimes," said Capt. Chris Nanos with the Pima County Sheriff's Department.
An arsonist targeted the fourth Northwest-area church to burn in a month on Monday, May 10.
The blaze caused minor damage to a window, walls, ceiling and chairs in the sanctuary of Catalina Lutheran Church, on the 15000 block of North Twin Lakes Road in Catalina.
Nanos said the four fires bore enough similarities to make investigators suspect all had been set by the same person.
"What we're seeing at the scenes leads us to believe that it is the same individual," Nanos said.
Sheriff's officials also have contacted federal law enforcement authorities about the fires. The perpetrators could face state as well as federal charges if the acts are determined to be hate crimes.
Sheriff's investigators did not disclose the causes of the fires or elaborate on the similarities.
Church officials with Catalina Lutheran allowed media access to the building where it appeared the arsonist hurled an incendiary device through a window to start the fire.
Firefighters with Golder Ranch Fire Department responded to the blaze in minutes and had the fire contained after five minutes, officials said.
The attack on the church left long-time member Roger Ketelsen baffled, who said he wasn't aware of any threats made against the congregation or any disgruntled former members.
"Our members are all long-term members," Ketelsen said. "A lot of them have been here since we opened, 22 years ago."
Church officials anticipated being able to hold services in the sanctuary as soon as last weekend, less than a week after the fire.
"It's all fixable," said Michael Morehouse, the presiding minister at Catalina Lutheran.
Morehouse said he was grateful for the rapid response of firefighters. He also was hopeful that the perpetrator would be caught and said he was ready to forgive.
"Hopefully, whoever did this will repent and ask forgiveness," he said.
The first church fire was set on April 9, at the front doors of the Flowing Wells Baptist Church, near Wetmore and Romero roads. The church sustained minimal damage.
Alliance Bible Church was the target of the second fire on April 26. At Wetmore and Romero roads, the church sits less than a mile away from the site of the first fire.
Again, the damage to the church was minimal.
Four days later on April 30, the suspected arsonist set ablaze the Northwest Community Friends Church on La Cañada Drive near Rudasill Road, a two-mile drive from the site of the previous fire.
The fire effectively gutted the church sanctuary, rendering the building unusable.
The fourth fire at Catalina Lutheran, more than 20 miles from the others, has caused increasing concern among sheriff's officials.
"This individual or individuals are operating at a pace that's alarming to us," Nanos said.
All of the churches have been Protestant, but of various denominations. Sheriff's officials did not say if they have found a common thread connecting the attacks.
They did not reveal if any suspects have been identified.
Profiling arsonists poses challenges to behavioral scientists as well.
"Mental health professionals know very little about firesetting behavior, and I'm speaking as a mental health professional," said Dian L. Williams of the Philadelphia-based Center for Arson Research.
Researchers have determined four main categories of motivation that adult arsonists fit.
Disorder-coping firesetters, as the name implies, are people who set fires as a way to deal with a separate pathology.
Williams said people in this subgroup of arsonists often are deviant sex offenders who set fires as a way to cope with the guilt associated with sadistic fantasies.
"The fantasies cause incredible anxiety, the fires cleanse those anxieties away," Williams said.
Williams said disorder-coping firesetters have no sympathy for their victims.
The subgroup known as the thrill seeker is a more common form of arsonist, but one that's often misunderstood, Williams said.
"This is the kind of person mistakenly described as wanting to be a hero," she said.
Arsonists of this sort tend to find motivation more in getting away with the act of setting a fire than seeking glory. These arsonists also tend to enjoy displaying intellectual superiority over other men.
Williams noted that men make up the vast majority of people with firesetting behavior.
A particularly dangerous subgroup of arsonist is the actively psychopathic firesetter.
These arsonists tend to have especially delusional motivations for setting fires. Many times people in this group believe they hear voices instructing them to set fires or have otherwise have imbued themselves with false beliefs.
A fourth group of arsonist is motivated by revenge.
"Revenge setters have similarities to the kinds of people who end up as disgruntled former employees," Williams said.
People in this group of arsonist generally have a sense that they've been wronged. Their motivations can be social or political as well as personal, Williams said.
Williams also noted that therapy has proven largely ineffective in adult firesetters.
"Prison only interrupts the behavior," she said.
Sheriff's officials have asked members of the community to be alert and to report any suspicious activity.
"We have pieces of this puzzle; we hope the community has the other pieces," Nanos said.
Anyone with information has been asked to call 88-CRIME or 9-1-1.