Church fire called act of intolerance

Police say religious zeal led Bible student to burn Episcopal church

Clarification: Caleb Lussier, the man accused in the arson of Christ Church in Pottersville, also allegedly burglarized the church by stealing religious items.

POTTERSVILLE — The Bibles were safe the night Christ Episcopal Church turned to tinder, allegedly at the hands of Caleb Uriah Lussier, police said Monday.

Lussier, 20, allegedly confessed to police that he used gasoline to torch the church in late May after he gathered the Bibles in a bag and placed them outside the reach of the flames.

Lussier, of Plymouth, Mass., is a student at the Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake, not far from Christ Episcopal. Investigators said he acted out of a religious zeal that also may have played a role in a fire at another church in his hometown and in threats against three other houses of worship.

Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland said Lussier thought the members of Christ Church were hypocrites who deviated from the teachings of the Bible and the word of God. He allegedly robbed the church twice in May. On one occasion he left behind a message written in a Bible: “You’ve been warned.” On May 30, a fire at the 77-year-old church burned out of control before firefighters arrived.

Last week, a congregant from another local church spotted Lussier at services and told Warren County sheriff’s investigators he seemed out of place. Police in Plymouth didn’t have a record on Lussier, but they did have an unsolved fire at a church in December 2005 at which a bag of Bibles also was left outside.

Working off those details and other similarities, police arrested Lussier in his dorm room Sunday. He has not been charged in Massachusetts, but Plymouth County Assistant District Attorney Bridget Norton Middleton said investigators were aware of the charges against him in New York and had been in contact with local police.

Cleveland said Lussier confessed to robbing the Christ Church and setting fire to both houses of worship. He also allegedly admitted to sending threatening letters three churches in his hometown. He was charged with two felony counts of third-degree burglary and a count of third-degree arson, a felony.

“He didn’t think they were following the Bible the way they thought they should,” Cleveland said. “He holds to the principle, but he said he went about it in the wrong way.”

The executive vice president of Word of Life Fellowship Inc. issued a statement after Lussier’s arrest.

“The student acknowledged that his actions in this incident are not consistent with the teaching received at Word of Life Bible Institute,” John Nelson wrote. “Word of Life condemns this reprehensible act, and this student will be expelled immediately.”

Word of Life is an evangelical ministry founded on Long Island in the 1930s. The founder, Jack Wyrtzen, began as a street preacher on Long Island. By 1940, he owned a camp and conference center in Schroon Lake in Essex County, just north of Pottersville. The Bible Institute was founded in 1971 and, according to the church’s Web site, 695 missionaries work in 46 countries.

The arrest brought relief to the tiny congregation of Christ Church in the small town about 85 miles north of Albany.

“We never wanted retribution,” said John Watson, a lay leader at Christ Church. “Our feeling is if Christ can forgive us for hanging him on a cross, there’s not much we can’t forgive.”

Watson said the members of the Episcopal church will pray for Lussier, and they are gathering donations to rebuild the church. A congregation of about 20 people has been meeting at the Wells House Bed and Breakfast in Pottersville.

A 15-year-old boy was charged this summer in connection with the May 30 fire; Watson said women in the church are knitting the boy a sweater and a scarf. Police have not yet found a link between Lussier and the boy. According to his confession, Lussier acted alone, but Cleveland said the 15-year-old knows details about the fire he could not know if he hadn’t been involved. The teen was charged in Family Court.

Lussier was arraigned in Chester Town Court. He is being held in Warren County jail for lack of $250,000 cash bail. He is scheduled to return to court later this month.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday November 22, 2006.
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