Public Safety issues call for information on 2012 arson fire at Isanti church

Minnesota authorities recently renewed a call for help in solving church arsons that have occurred in the state since 2012, including an unsolved arson that took place in Isanti.

The second week of May was Arson Awareness Week nationally, with the theme of Arson Prevention at Houses of Worship.

In a May 10 press release, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety asked for anyone with information on the nine unsolved church arsons that have taken place in the state since 2012 to come forwarded. The earliest arson covered by the call is a fire at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Isanti during the wee hours of May 28, 2012.

The incident took place while St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was constructing a new wing onto the church building. The suspected arsonist attempted to start the construction site on fire after trying and failing to enter the church through its main entrance, per Jose Edayadiyil, who was pastor at the church at the time of the fire. Structural damage to the church was avoided, but some windows and doors sitting at the construction site were destroyed before they could be installed.

A sprinkler system had been installed shortly before the arson took place. When the fire caused the sprinklers to go off, they prevented greater damage from being done to the building, suppressing the fire until authorities arrived.

“It was extremely lucky for us that those sprinklers were functioning,” said Isanti firefighter Zach Lundberg, who was on the force at the time of the arson.

Edayadiyil said the fire caused a two- or three-week delay in the construction of the church’s new wing.

The alleged perpetrator was caught on security camera footage walking around the church the night of the arson.

“They saw somebody that was never identified walking around the church,” Lundberg said.

The man who entered the church construction site in the video wore a light colored cap, a sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He has still not been identified. Randy Polzin, who was the Isanti Fire District Chief at the time, said shortly after the fire he thought the arsonist must be local because there were no vehicles in the surveillance video.

Fires that are determined to be arson are uncommon in Isanti.

“I can only think of maybe a couple others,” Lundberg said.

The Isanti Fire District does some work to determine the possible causes of every fire its firefighters get called to, but in a case of suspected arson, things quickly move up the chain to the State Fire Marshal’s Office and law enforcement.

In its press release, the Department of Public Safety notes houses of worship are especially vulnerable to fire “because they’re often unoccupied for long periods of time, and in many cases, in rural areas. Rural properties will generally sustain more severe damage because discovery and response time may be delayed.”

The other arsons listed in the Department of Public Safety press release are:
• Darling Historic Church in Little Falls on March 24, 2017.
• St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Melrose on March 11, 2016.
• Abandoned church in Deer Creek on Aug. 22, 2016.
• Church Inc. building in St. Paul on Feb., 15, 2016.
• Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on June 13, 2014.
• Open Arms Assembly of God in St. Paul on Sept. 6, 2014.
• Community Covenant Church in Minneapolis on July 11, 2013.
• Faith Baptist Church in St. Paul on Aug. 26, 2013.

Anyone with information on any of the arsons can provide it anonymously by calling the Minnesota Arson Hotline at 800-723-2020. Information about the fires can also be submitted online at www.mniaai.org. Rewards of up to $5,000 are available.