2 men face hate crime charges for separately setting fire to a Latter-day Saint mission car, church
Justice Department and state prosecutors say the unrelated cases in Connecticut and Missouri were religiously motivated arsons.
Men in two states face hate crime charges for arsons targeting members and property of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called Mormons.
Samuel D. Vandeusen, 22, was arrested May 2 in Torrington, Connecticut, after a neighbor getting ready for work at 3 a.m. saw him allegedly set fire to a car used by two young Latter-day Saint missionaries. He told police he didn’t like their beliefs.
Vandeusen faces state charges of arson and deprivation of rights because of religion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on May 5 that it has filed federal hate crimes and arson charges against Christopher Scott Pritchard, 46, for allegedly burning down a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse last year in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Pritchard previously had threatened to burn down the meetinghouse and assault the bishop of a Latter-day Saint congregation that met there, the Deseret News reported last year.
The Connecticut and Missouri chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the alleged religiously motivated attacks. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not comment.
The possibility of mental health issues have been raised in both cases.
Why did someone set fire to a car used by two Latter-day Saint missionaries?
Mike Pickert was getting ready for work in his Torrington, Connecticut, home at around 3 a.m. on May 2.
“When I looked out the window, I saw somebody putting a lit rag in the gas tank,” he told Fox61. “It really caught fire quickly.”
Pickert said he saw Vandeusen set fire to the tank of a new Chevy Equinox owned by the Boston Massachusetts Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Equinox was parked in front of a home where Vandeusen lived on one floor and Elder Josh Farrell and his missionary companion lived on another, police said.
Pickert called police. When they arrived, they asked him if he knew who set the fire. Torrington Police Det. Kevin Tieman shared Pickert’s response with the Deseret News.
“Yes,” he said, pointing to a window. “He’s up there watching it.”
Police arrested Vandeusen and he confessed, Tieman said. They also woke up the missionaries. Farrell told them he and his mission companion knew Vandeusen in passing. They exchanged greetings but did not discuss religion, according to the Waterbury Republican-American.
Pickert told police and reporters that the missionaries were friendly.
“There’s no reason for this. There’s just no reason for it. Everyone gets along,” Pickert told Fox61.
But Vandeusen told police he had a problem with Latter-day Saints and their religious beliefs and that he wanted to see the Equinox “blow up,” the Republican-American reported.
“His confession was very simple,” Tieman said. “He didn’t believe in the Mormon ideologies or the Mormon beliefs. The sole reason he committed the crime against somebody was because of religion.”
Torrington Superior Court Judge Chris Pelosi ordered Vandeusen held on a $250,000 bond. He also ordered a mental competency exam, according to court records.
“He’s getting help through the court,” Tieman said.
Vandeusen is being held at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut, said Andrius Banevicius, public information officer for the Connecticut Department of Corrections.
The Garner facility houses inmates with acute mental health issues, Banevicius said. Each inmate is evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating the most acute issues.
“He is a 5,” Banevicius said.
The Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the alleged religious bias.
“Americans of all faiths should be free to share their faith without fear of intimidation or attack,” CAIR-Connecticut chairman Farhan Memon said in a statement. “We condemn this alleged bias-motivated attack and urge community leaders to speak out against the type of bigotry that inevitably leads to such incidents.”
In addition to arson and deprivation of rights, including religious rights, Vandeusen faces charges of criminal mischief and breach of the peace.
Vandeusen is scheduled to appear in court on July 11 to enter a plea.
Why did the Justic Department file hate crime charges in the arson of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse?
The Justice Department issued a press release on May 5 headlined, “Missouri man charged with federal hate crime and arson for burning down a church.”
Pritchard is charged with intentionally obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs of members of the Cape Girardeau Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to court documents.
“We welcome the hate crime charges in this despicable attack targeting a house of worship,” CAIR-Missouri Board chairman Yasir Ali said in a statement. “We stand in solidarity with the Mormon community and all those targeted by bigotry and hate.”
Pritchard allegedly had harassed members of the church and people at a nearby university in early April 2021.
Court documents say Pritchard allegedly threatened to use a brick to bash in the head of the bishop of the Cape Girardeau Ward and to burn down the church’s meetinghouse.
Southeast Missouri State University banned Pritchard from campus on April 16. Two days later, the fire consumed the church, which was a total loss.
A couple in a nearby apartment building saw smoke coming from the church and reported the fire at about 9:30 p.m. on Sunday night, April 18, 2021. They told police they saw a man with a backpack watching the church at the time, according to police reports and court documents.
Another couple stopped a sheriff’s deputy’s car to report a suspicious man with a backpack walking away from the fire. Their description matched the one given by the couple who reported the fire, police told the Southeast Missourian.
The deputy found Pritchard walking on a road about 1.5 miles from the church and took him to the sheriff’s office, where court documents say he admitted threatening the bishop but denied stealing from the church and setting it on fire.
Police also said they found items taken from the church in Pritchard’s backpack, including a laptop, projector, speakers, extension cords, apples and a cheese grater, according to KFVS12.
The church was engulfed in flames when fire crews arrived.
The Southeast Missourian published a gallery of photos of the fire.
“We stood in the parking lot and watched the church burn, and there were a lot of tears,” Bishop John Fulton told the Church News. Fulton’s first day as bishop was the day of the fire.
The congregation became itinerant, first meeting in the Cape Girardeau’s community Osage Centre, then at Southeast Missouri State University and then at the former Metro Business College. Stake conference was held at the Drury Plaza Conference Center.
If convicted, Pritchard faces up to 20 years in prison for obstructing the congregation’s rights and a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, consecutive to any other sentence, for using fire to commit a federal felony. Pritchard also faces a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge.
Pritchard’s sister told a Missouri television station last year that she and her brother were raised in the church. She said her brother had been homeless for two years and suffers from mental illness. She rebutted the hate crime charge.
Court records do not indicate whether Pritchard has undergone a mental health examination.
Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney Mark Welker charged Pritchard with property damage motivated by discrimination, arson, burglary and stealing $750 or more, all felonies. Welker alleged that Pritchard was “knowingly motivated to (set the fire) by reason of a motive related to the religion of the people who worship at the Church of Latter-day Saints,” according to KFVS-TV.
A judge found probable cause after a preliminary hearing last June and bound Pritchard over for trial. The trial is scheduled for October.
However, Pritchard has now been transferred to federal custody.
The Justice Department release said the federal charges against Pritchard were the result of an investigation by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Office and the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Pritchard was arrested for a domestic assault in November 2020. He was ordered to have no contact with the victim and was released on his own recognizance. However, he was arrested again a few days later for assaulting the same woman. He pleaded guilty to a single charge in early 2021 and was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail.
How many religiously-motivated hate crime charges are filed each year?
Law enforcement agencies across the nation reported 1,521 religiously-motivated hate crime incidents in 2019 and 1,244 in 2020, when crime fell during the pandemic, according to the Justice Department database.
In 2020, the latest year for which data is available, religious motives accounted for 13.3% of reported hate crimes.