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Even With a Suspect in Custody, a String of Church Fires Remains Confounding 

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There were signs even before Jackson was apprehended that the motivation driving the fires was more complicated than black and white — which may be why pastors were hesitant to blame racism despite the push from national media.

One reason was sheer logistics: A white man lurking in predominantly black neighborhoods with a can of gasoline would likely have drawn attention from neighbors. Professional profiler Dian Williams, founder of the Arson Research Center in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, predicted the arsonist would be someone who could fit in.

"Whoever this is, it's someone who can be around a church at four o'clock in the afternoon and not attract undue attention," Williams said in the days before Jackson's arrest. "And you have to have someone who can be away from home at four in the morning."

And the fire setter's message wouldn't necessarily be easy to understand. A special subtype of arsonist, a revenge seeker, cares little for attention or even clarity.

"What's fascinating about revenge-seeking arsonists is they're teaching people a lesson, and it never matters to them if anyone ever knows, that anyone ever realizes they're the ones sending the message," she says.

click to enlarge The Reverend Dale Wunderlich pauses in front of the Shrine of St. Joseph’s rectory doors the morning of an arson attack. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Doyle Murphy
  • The Reverend Dale Wunderlich pauses in front of the Shrine of St. Joseph’s rectory doors the morning of an arson attack.

Which could explain the seemingly pattern-breaking addition of the Shrine of St. Joseph. The Catholic church mostly attracts whites, about a third of them out-of-towners attracted to its complex history. Located about six blocks northwest of Edward Jones Dome at the edge of downtown, it's also outside the cluster of the other fires.

The towering brick building was built in 1844 and holds special reverence with Catholics as the site of a Vatican-authenticated miracle. A German immigrant, Ignatius Strecker, is said to have been near death in 1861 when he dragged himself inside to receive a blessing and kiss the foot of the statue of St. Peter Claver. He immediately began to heal and was able to walk out on his own, church officials say. Strecker recovered completely and lived another nineteen years in St. Louis.

The story of a priest assigned to the parish almost a century later, the Reverend Edward Filipiak, however, ended in brutal violence. At one point in the 1970s, the building had been set for demolition as wrecking crews scraped away most of the surrounding neighborhood. The 79-year-old priest was in the middle of a long-running preservation effort in 1979 when three teens broke into the church and murdered him. Filipiak's lifeless body was discovered bound, lying on the floor of a modest bedroom in the church rectory, a separate building attached to the cathedral by a short passageway.

The tragedy galvanized the effort to save the shrine and ultimately propelled a meticulous restoration. The Baroque façade with twin bell towers enclose a sanctuary decorated in expertly carved woodwork with space for 2,400 people. The Altar of Answered Prayers rises dramatically toward a dome painted in lavish murals.

Through all the changes, the lay board that oversees the shrine has kept Filipiak's room on the second floor of the rectory exactly as he left it. His single bed is neatly made. His black cassock hangs nearby, and a twelve-pack of Budweiser bottles still waits in a mini fridge.

No one lives there now, so police hustled over when the rectory's alarm sounded just after 1 a.m. on October 22. The first officers found the doors to Filipiak's former home bathed in the light of flames.

Jenkerson, looking exasperated in the early morning dark, told reporters the fire was in a "similar style" to the previous six at churches to the north.

"It's very disturbing," the fire chief said.

The damage was once again confined to burned doors and the smell of smoke thanks to a quick response. Father Dale Wunderlich climbed the stairs hours later and bent his face close to the black ash.

"Oh my Lord, have mercy," he murmured. The arsonist had spoken again, but Wunderlich was just as confused as all the other pastors about the message.

The priest tried instead to reach out to the arsonist, speaking into the television cameras assembled on the sidewalk.

"If there is any way we can help you," he pleaded, "let us help you."

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