Police: Alleged arsonist acted alone in Dummerston church fire
DUMMERSTON -- Investigators are crediting "old-fashioned police work" for the quick arrest in Monday night's arson at Dummerston Congregational Church.
And while many details are not yet available, Vermont State Police say they think the suspect likely did not have help in setting a blaze inside the historic structure.
"It's an ongoing investigation, but we believe at this point, based on what we learned from the investigation, that he acted alone," said Detective Sgt. Steven Otis of the Vermont State Police Fire Investigation Unit.
On Thursday, Otis said he could not comment on what motives might have led 19-year-old Dakota Thomas, who is accused of second-degree arson, to set the church fire. Thomas was cited to appear Oct. 14 in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division to answer the charge.
Otis also could not say how the fire was started. More details will be available when an affidavit is released following Thomas' arraignment next month.
"All we can really call it is an arson at this point," Otis said.
State Police began investigating the fire Tuesday and, by dinnertime Wednesday, had announced the arrest of Thomas. Otis said the suspect was arrested and processed at his home without incident, then released on court-ordered conditions.
Though police had issued a call for tips related to the crime, Otis said such information -- while often helpful in other cases -- did not play a role in this investigation.
"It's just good, old-fashioned police work," Otis said. "It's just going door to door and talking to people."
Otis confirmed that the blaze, which caused an estimated $25,000 damage inside the church, started in a wall behind the pulpit. West Dummerston firefighters, noting heavy smoke upon their arrival, requested a second alarm that summoned firefighters from several surrounding towns.
Firefighters spent hours fully suppressing the blaze. But they would have faced a much tougher situation if not for Moe Momaney, who on Monday night had driven his son, Terran, and his son's girlfriend to her home near the church.
"Next thing I knew, he was tapping me and saying, 'Dad, the church is on fire,'" Momaney recalled Thursday.
Momaney, who runs a Dummerston painting business, said he quickly ran inside the church. There were no lights on, but none were necessary, as there was "a lot of fire" in a curtain at the front of the church, he recalled.
Momaney grabbed a fire extinguisher in the church's lobby and, over the course of "a minute or two," did his best to douse the flames. A neighbor then called 911.
If someone had not happened by, "I'm sure it would have been much worse," Momaney said. "Who knows what would have happened."
At the same time, though, Momaney also gave credit to his son and seemed reluctant to accept much praise.
"Anybody would have done it, I feel like," he said.
On Thursday, Otis labeled the church damage "more cosmetic" than structural. He mentioned damage to Sheetrock and insulation as well as "a fine layer of dust over everything."
"It could have been a lot worse," Otis said.
Otis also credited the work of the church's leadership in the aftermath of the fire.
"They've worked with me from the beginning," he said. "They've been great."
The congregation is scheduled to worship this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at the Evening Star Grange near the church. In a submission to the Reformer, Pastor Susanna Griefen said church members are "feeling so grateful, first that no one was hurt, and that the building was saved due to alert neighbors and wonderful firemen."
"We praise God that while 'the church is not a building,' this sacred space was spared," Griefen wrote.
There will be a special offering on Sunday to help cover fire expenses. Griefen wrote that there also will be pictures of the fire-damaged sanctuary and "an opportunity for worshippers to write down thanksgivings and hopes that will be read as part of the prayers of the people."
"We hold especially in our prayers the troubled young man involved, the neighbors who acted so quickly and the first responders," the pastor wrote.
She said the congregation will have to put a temporary hold on food donations for the Drop-In Center.
"It will be awhile before the church is back in its own space," Griefen wrote. "Meetings scheduled at the church will have to be relocated until further notice. Repairs and painting and cleaning are all needed and will be handled professionally and covered by insurance. But the congregation will continue its worship and acts of mercy."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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