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Arson determined for LDS church fire in Arizona

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Last week’s fire that destroyed a 50-year-old LDS meetinghouse in Tolleson, Ariz., has been determined to be the work of an arsonist, according to local police officials.

"Right now the only people that know where and how the fire was started are the (Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco) investigators and the people who started the fire," said Tolleson Police Chief Larry Rodriguez Friday afternoon. "There was unauthorized entry and vandalism."

Rodriguez said police are offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the case, which has not been classified as a hate crime.

Three wards, or congregations, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — consisting of about 1,400 church members — have been displaced by the fire. Local church spokeswoman Cindy Packard indicated that members are meeting in other chapels in the west Phoenix area until plans for rebuilding the Tolleson meetinghouse are finalized.

"We are saddened by today's findings, and thank the investigators for their efforts," Packard said, adding that "we appreciate the many messages of sympathy and support from our community."

Ronald Waldron, president of the church's Phoenix Arizona Maricopa West Stake (an ecclesiastical unit comprised of several local congregations, similar to a diocese in other Christian denominations), said he has received calls from city and school district officials, offering meeting space and other assistance as needed.

"Our neighbors and friends have been so supportive," Waldron said. "We appreciate their kindness and concern."

Waldron said he is urging stake members to remember a sermon that was delivered during a recent stake conference gathering. A convert to Mormonism spoke about "hating" Mormons during her high school years. In fact, during her talk she confessed to throwing a big cup of soda on a bicycling LDS missionary as she and her friends drove past him in their car.

"Her message was simple: people change," Waldron said. "Just a few years ago she was persecuting our missionaries, and today she is a member of the church herself. We need to remember that. Whoever did this, we need to remember that people can change. Our job is to serve and to forgive and to love those involved, and to let the police do their job with the arson investigation."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com