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Feds: 4 attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses churches linked; $25,000 reward offered

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OLYMPIA, Wash. - Federal investigators said Wednesday they believe four attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses churches in Thurston County are linked, and a $25,000 reward is now being offered for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible.

At a morning news conference, officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said there have been three arsons and one reported shooting this year at Jehovah's Witnesses' Kingdom Halls in Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm. All four attacks are considered hate crimes, said Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza.

ATF Special Agent Darek G. Pleasants said authorities are worried that there may be further attacks that could result in injury or death, and it is imperative that the suspect be caught. He implored anyone with information that might help crack the case to contact police.

The most recent arson, on the early morning of July 3, caused the most damage. It destroyed the Kingdom Hall at 22nd Avenue SE and Cain Road SE in Olympia, leaving it a gutted and blackened shell.

There also were two earlier arsons in March that caused minor damage - one at the same Kingdom Hall that was destroyed in July and one at a Kingdom Hall in Tumwater. Video surveillance footage showed a person pouring a liquid on the exterior of the Olympia church in the earlier fire, but no suspect was ever arrested.

The other attack was a shooting that struck a Kingdom Hall in Yelm with about 35 rifle rounds, causing more than $10,000 in damage to the structure.

Pleasants said Wednesday that the attacker is likely a male with a grievance, perceived or otherwise, against the Jehovah's Witnesses. He said this person may have changed their appearance in recent weeks, they may have missed appointments or work and they may have an extreme interest in the arson investigation.

He said investigators also would like to speak with a person of interest in the case who purchased the same brand of fire logs used in the July 3 arson at the Fred Meyer store in Tumwater on Tuesday, May 29, at 4:45 p.m. This person was wearing a dark coat, jeans and a distinctive Seattle Seahawks baseball cap.

Pleasants said the person may have had a legitimate reason for buying the fire logs, but investigators would like to speak with him.

In addition, Pleasants said investigators would like to speak with the owner or operator of a dark Jeep Renegade that was captured on security footage on 12:50 a.m. July 3 near the Kingdom Hall that was destroyed by fire.

"If you know who this man is, please contact law enforcement. ... We cannot move forward successfully with our investigation without the public's help," he said.

The attacks are under investigation by ATF, FBI, Olympia police and fire departments, Thurston County Sheriff's Office Tumwater police and fire departments.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is also offering up to another $1,000 reward through Crime Stoppers of South Sound, making the total possible reward up to $26,000.

Anyone having information on the fires or shooting should call ATF’s toll free hotline at 888-ATF-TIPS (283-8477), Crime Stoppers of South Sound at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477), or the Arson Alarm Foundation at 1-800-55-ARSON (-27766).

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