Modesto, CA – Sprinkler system keeps arson fire at church from spreading

Treading carefully through standing water in the basement of Christ Unity Baptist Church on Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Nathaniel Green and his wife, Dorothea, were pained by more than just the damage done in an act of arson and vandalism. They struggled to understand why.

The man suspected of breaking into the church on the 1300 block of L Street, 57-year-old Theodore Garcia, is someone they’ve cared for and employed, Nathaniel Green said. “He’s really worked for us,” the pastor said at his office desk. Behind him, a table was covered in broken glass from the window behind it. “He loves me and my wife, he loves this church.”

Green said he understands Garcia has battled drug addictions, and the pastor indicated he regrets that wages paid to him may have fed that addiction. He said he hasn’t spoken to Garcia but suspects that the man was despondent and suicidal. Garcia had knives with him, and bloody handprints (church staff believe he cut his hands breaking windows) were on at least two Bibles near the church altar.

“Isn’t it something, the power of what drugs can do?” Dorothea Green said as she surveyed fire damage, pried-open doors and other vandalism done throughout the basement. A couch was set on fire, as was clothing to be donated to the homeless. A fire in the dining hall damaged a table and carpeting. In all, the Greens believe five separate blazes were set. And the sprinkler system caused more damage, leaving water at least an inch deep throughout basement rooms and corridors.

The Rev. Green said the damage means the church’s homeless breakfasts and food giveaways will have to be put on hold. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to hold services,” he said. “We do have a few people with severe asthma,” he added, noting that smoke can be smelled throughout the church. The church also hosts several groups – including Narcotics Anonymous, children of alcoholics and families of inmates – that regularly meet in rooms, he said, that also will be temporarily affected.

The vandalism at the church came to light about 11:20 p.m. Monday when a sergeant and officer with Rank Investigation & Protection responded to a report of a subject breaking windows there. They encountered an uncooperative man who ran back inside the church and started a fire, according to a post on Rank’s Facebook page.

The Modesto Police and Fire departments were on scene within minutes, Rank reported. A Modesto Fire Department incident summary says light smoke was coming from the first and second floors of the southeast corner of the church. Crews determined a fire sprinkler was keeping the fires – in the basement level – from spreading. Police found the man on his hands and knees near the church altar, said Lt. Tom Ciccarelli. He was armed with knives and would not comply with commands from officers.

The department’s Critical Incident Team was activated to negotiate with the man, the lieutenant said. Talking with him was unsuccessful, Ciccarelli said. A bean bag round was fired at him, but had no effect.

At some point, the man – later identified Garcia – got up. When the knives were on the floor and he moved far enough away from them, officers were able to take him into custody, Ciccarelli said. Officers at the scene were unable to ascertain a motive, he said. The incident was concluded close to 2 a.m.

Garcia was medically cleared at the scene and booked into the Stanislaus County Jail. He is being held on charges of arson and vandalism, with bail at $200,000. The Rev. Green was dealing with his insurer Tuesday afternoon, but no financial estimate of church damage was immediately available.

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