Arson not ruled out in storefront church blaze

A Monday morning fire that burned a controversial furniture store in Hampton Township may have been intentionally set.

An accelerant-sniffing dog hit on numerous spots around the front door of Marquiss Quality Furniture, 644 W. Center Road, on Monday afternoon, investigators said.

Christian Identity teacher James P. Wickstrom, whose message is strongly pro-white and anti-Jewish, had been holding regular Bible study meetings at the store for the last three years.

Christian Identity

The teachings and practices of the Christian Identity movement are incompatible with Biblical, mainstream Christianity

Adherents believe present day Anglo-Saxon people are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites, and have thus inherited all God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. The movement consists of a number of groups, most of which promote hate by considering whites to be the superior race (“white supremacy“).

Wickstrom called the fire “worse than terrible” and a tragedy.

“Terrorism is alive and well in Bay County, isn’t it?” he said Monday afternoon.

Wickstrom said there is supposed to be freedom of religion, faith, assembly and speech in the United States, and whoever set the fire tried to deny those freedoms to store owners Mary and LeRoy Marquiss, whom he calls good, honest people.

Wickstrom said it’s wrong to call his religion a hate group. He urged anyone with information about the fire to come forward.

State Fire Marshal Leonard Jaskulka said it’s too early to say that the fire was arson or that it was intentionally set.

But he said it was “uncharacteristic” for ignitable liquids to be stored near the front door of the one-story building, which housed a furniture store and water conditioning business.

“We’re treating this as a crime scene,” he said.

Jaskulka said 11 samples detected by the dog were sent to the Michigan State Police crime lab in Bridgeport for analysis, and he plans to wait about three weeks for the results to come back before determining a cause.

The accelerant-sniffing dog, a yellow Labrador named Swifty, hit on debris that smelled like gasoline near the front door of the business, said K-9 Officer Roger McGee of the Detroit Police Department. Swifty is certified by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and handled by the Detroit Police, McGee said.

The dog is trained to sniff out fuels ranging from gasoline to charcoal lighter fluid, McGee said.

The FBI official interviewed the Marquisses at the scene.

Afterward, Mary Marquiss said she, her husband, LeRoy, and their son, Ray, had been ruled out as suspects in the fire.

But Jaskulka said no one has been ruled out yet.

Mary Marquiss, 68, said meetings had been held at the store every two weeks up until the fire. She said the blaze won’t end the business, or the meetings.

“It was arson,” Mary Marquiss said. “It’s in Yahweh’s hands now,” she added, using the Hebrew name for God, or Father. “Good will come of this. I don’t know what yet.”

Mary and LeRoy Marquiss are suspicious of government officials, but said the investigators at the scene were doing a fine job.

Mary Marquiss said the front of her store was gutted, and three offices in the back sustained smoke and water damage, but business records kept in a fireproof safe and file cabinet were intact.

She said she doesn’t think the building can be rebuilt, because its roof is sagging now, but the property is insured.

Fire Marshal Jaskulka sifted through debris at the scene alongside local fire and police officials and agents from the FBI and ATF. Samples were scooped with a shovel and put into bags.

Special Agent Walt Reynolds, regional director for the FBI in Bay City, said the FBI and ATF are required to respond to church and religious-type fires.

“In our business, we can’t take sides,” Reynolds said.

He said the fire is a possible hate crime, which is a federal offense.

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