Robert Nicoletti, 18, of Westfield, pleaded innocent at his arraignment Monday in Westfield District Court on charges of burning a building and breaking and entering. A pretrial conference was scheduled for Dec. 30.
Nicoletti was arrested after he was seen leaving the area of the church, police said. The fire was reported shortly before 6 a.m. on Sunday.
No one was injured, but the two-alarm blaze gutted the 25-by-80-foot church on Southwick Road, according to Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Pac. A nearby storage shed that Nicoletti allegedly broke into was also destroyed.
Authorities estimated the damage at more than $375,000.
Pac said a suspicious liquid that may be gasoline was found around the building, and that apparently sped the fire’s spread. He said it took about two hours to get the blaze under control.
The fire was not believed to be a hate crime.
”We found there’s no direct motive of an anti-religious activity,” state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said.
”At this point it simply appears to be a crime of opportunity,” said Westfield Police Detective David Ragazzini.
The 35-year-old building had been used by more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses with two congregations sharing the building, said Brett Van Sickle of Russell, an elder with one congregation.
He said the building had been insured.
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