Prosecutors have charged a homeless man with a hate crime and arson in connection with a fire that burned down a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Christopher Pritchard, 45, whose sister told a local television station that she and her brother were raised in the church, is being held without bail or bond in the Cape Girardeau County Jail.
Prosecutors charged Pritchard Monday with first-degree property damage motivated by discrimination because they allege he was “knowingly motivated to do so by reason of a motive related to the religion of the people who worship at the Church of Latter-day Saints,” Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney Mark Welker told KFVS.
Pritchard also faces charges of arson and burglary, which are second-degree felonies, and felony stealing, according to court documents.
Pritchard’s sister contacted KFVS on Monday night to rebut the hate crime charge. She told the news station that Pritchard has been homeless for two years and suffers from mental illness.
Pritchard allegedly had harassed members of the church and people at the nearby university in recent days.
Court documents say that Pritchard allegedly threatened to use a brick to bash in the head of the bishop of the Cape Girardeau Ward, the Latter-day Saint congregation that meets in the burned building, which is a total loss, according to KFVS.
Pritchard also allegedly threatened to burn down the meetinghouse.
Southeast Missouri State University banned Pritchard from campus two days before the fire consumed the church. Pritchard was served a trespass order on Friday, according to communications director Kathy Harper.
“The trespass order stems from complaints by faculty, staff and students, and negative interactions with university police officers,” Harper said in a statement provided to the Deseret News.
The threats against the bishop and meetinghouse prompted local church leaders to request additional police patrols in the area of the building.
According to police reports and court documents, a couple in a nearby apartment building saw a man with a backpack watching the church when they first saw smoke coming from the building and reported the fire at about 9:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The church was engulfed in flames when fire crews arrived, according to the Southeast Missourian.
The newspaper published a gallery of photos of the fire.
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 reported by the couple who reported the fire, police told the Missourian.
The deputy found Pritchard walking on a nearby road 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.