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Arson suspected in church fire

July 16, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - A fire that destroyed a church along U.S. 522 south of Berkeley Springs on Monday night appears to be arson, authorities said.

A worker on break at the Tom Seely Furniture plant across the road from the Holiness Church of Jesus Christ noticed the fire and alerted his shift supervisor, said Steve McBee, chief of the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Department.

Firefighters, who received the call about 11:10 p.m., said a back corner of the church was on fire when they arrived.

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"When the fire got through the roof, that was pretty much the end of it," McBee said.

J.W. Stevens, pastor of the church, said there have never been any problems with crime at the church about five miles south of Berkeley Springs.

"I just can't fathom anyone wanting to do this to any church. But we're not staggered. We're just trying to take it in stride and continue to serve the Lord," said Stevens, who has a congregation of about 30 people.

Officials declined to comment why they think it was arson. No one had been in the church since the regular service on Sunday, McBee said.

Investigators have interviewed several people, said Sgt. Deke Walker of the West Virginia State Police, one of four agencies investigating the blaze.

Besides state police, other investigating agenices include the state Fire Marshal's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Morgan County Sheriff's Department, McBee said.

The ATF automatically responds to church fires since a rash of fires struck predominantly black churches in the South over the last two years, according to Walker.

The Holiness Church of Jesus Christ is a predominantly white church.

About 35 firefighters from the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Department and the South Morgan Volunteer Fire Co. worked for four hours to put out the fire, officials said.

The Holiness Church of Jesus Christ leased the church for about eight years from the Bethel Cemetery Association, which maintains the cemetery that surrounds the church. Parts of the church date back to the 1800s, said McBee.

Tuesday night, about 20 members of the church's congregation met at Stevens' home for regular services. Stevens said he plans to temporarily hold services at his home about a mile south of the church.

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