Law enforcement officials in San Diego’s North County – including the FBI – announced Thursday that a $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of a suspect who set fire to a mosque in Escondido, California, last month.
The Escondido Police Department (EPD) – along with officials from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – held a news briefing to discuss the state of their investigation into the fire that happened in the early morning hours of March 24 at the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque at 318 West 6th Ave.
At around 3:15 a.m. that day, flames erupted at the mosque in what authorities suspect was an act of arson and possibly a hate crime.
According to investigators, the arsonist left behind a message at the Escondido mosque referencing the March 15 deadly terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
According to police, seven people were inside Dar-ul-Arqam for religious purposes at the time of the fire. The victims grabbed a fire extinguisher and were able to put out the flames before firefighters arrived.
The incident happened before an early-morning prayer service, at which point there would’ve been many more people inside the mosque.
EPD Lt. Chris Lick said officers with his department responded to the scene of the fire that day, along with investigators from the FBI, ATF and San Diego County Sheriff’s Bomb/Arson Unit. Lick said there was visible scorching to one of the building’s exterior walls. The flames had been contained to that area.
Early on in the investigation, police said surveillance cameras at the mosque may have captured images of an unknown person breaking a lock to open a gate in the parking lot on the morning of the fire.
On Thursday, Lick confirmed those surveillance cameras at the mosque were not working at the time of the crime.
He said investigators have been canvassing the neighborhood in search of potential footage caught on other surveillance cameras in the area but, at this point, the lieutenant said police do not have any video footage to release to the media to aid the investigation.
EPD Capt. Edward Varso called on the public for help with leads in this case and added, "We cannot do this alone."
"Our goal is to protect the community and bring justice to the person or people responsible for the crimes committed at the mosque," said Varso.
As of Thursday, nearly three weeks after the fire, Varso said the suspect or suspects remained at large.
Ernesto Diaz, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for ATF San Diego, said his agency will collaborate with local and state partners until there is an arrest in the case.
"Arson is a crime of violence," Diaz said. "It can result in death and injury. Fortunately, in this instance, no one was injured. ATF views arson attack against a house of worship as an attack not just on a building, but on a community as a whole."
According to police, the arsonist wrote a message in graffiti in the parking lot of the mosque referencing the New Zealand mosque attacks, but police did not reveal the exact words in the hateful message.
At Thursday's presser, officials remained mum on the contents of what Lick called "vandalism."
Suzanne Turner, Acting Special Agent in Charge for the San Diego FBI, said officials with the bureau are still trying to determine if this fire was a hate crime. The FBI is the agency in charge of classifying it as such but, first, Turner said agents need to understand the suspect’s "motivation and bias."
"We take it (a hate crime) very seriously, especially in a house of worship," Turner said.
Turner hopes the $10,000 reward offered jointly by the investigating agencies is enough to bring forth fresh leads. She said anyone with information on the identity of the arson suspect can call the San Diego FBI at its 24-hour tip line at (800) CALL-FBI.
"We need the community to assist us in identifying this individual," she added.
The representatives from all three agencies said they will continue to work to help the community feel safe in any place of worship.
"Escondido is a diverse community. Escondido is a caring community," said Varso. "And Escondido is a community that will not tolerate crimes committed against its places of worship and peace."
Varso said the EPD boosted patrols in the area immediately after the fire and continues to keep a close eye on the mosque.
The police captain also said officers were working with leaders at the mosque to improve the security system around the building.
Dar-ul-Arqam was built four years ago in Escondido, a community in San Diego’s North County. Today, the mosque serves several hundred members.
The fire left many members of the mosque’s community feeling on edge. However, it did not stop members from using the building as their place of worship.
“We won’t stop praying. We won’t stop gathering,” Yusef Miller, a member of the Muslim community in Escondido told NBC 7 on the day of the arson attack at Dar-ul-Arqam.
Miller said mosque members would remain vigilant and heightened in their awareness but added, “We’re still resolved in the idea that there are people here that love us and support us.”
Meanwhile, an online fundraising page was created on a website called LaunchGood to collect donations through April 6 to repair the mosque. That account is titled “We Stand With Escondido Mosque” and, as of the fundraiser’s close, had raised more than $5,000 for the Islamic worship center.