$5K Reward Offered in Suspected Church Arson Case

A fire broke out near the altar at Santa Sophia Catholic Church in Spring Valley Tuesday night

Officials are now offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspect or suspects responsible for intentionally setting a fire at a Spring Valley church.

Special Agent in Charge Steven J. Bogdalek of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) announced Thursday that the reward was being offered in connection with the suspected arson case at Santa Sophia Catholic Church.

On Tuesday, at around 8 p.m., a fire broke out at the church located in the 9800-block of San Juan Street. Firefighters rushed to the scene and were able to knock down the blaze within 10 minutes.

Once the fire was out, San Diego Fire Department officials requested assistance at the scene from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Bomb/Arson and ATF investigators.

The fire appeared to be suspicious in nature, and arson investigators ultimately determined that it was set intentionally.

On Thursday, Bogdalek said he believed the public could help provide important leads on the case.

“We are confident the public can assist in providing information on who could have done something so reckless,” he said. “We will continue to work with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department to ensure that the people responsible will be held accountable for depriving this community of a place that is so important to them.”

According to officials, the church fire caused more than $200,000 in damage. No one was injured, and no other buildings were damaged.

On Tuesday night, as officials were investigating the possibility of arson, Leonard Villarreal with the San Miguel Fire District said calling ATF officials to the scene was part of protocol.

"Any time there is a church fire or at a place of worship, given the history, it's become traditional to call ATF and the bomb squad, just to be safe," he said.

Father Jacob Bertrend, the priest at Santa Sophia Catholic Church, said the fire started near the church altar right by a crucifix that’s very important to members of the church.

"The crucifix, the indoor one that we have, is the largest indoor crucifix west of the Mississippi," Bertrend said.

Despite the damage, the priest told NBC 7 that he feels there's still hope for whoever allegedly started the fire.

"When anyone makes decisions in their lives that obviously harm other people, there is a justice system that we have," Bertrend said. "But as that justice process goes through, I hope it's something that can be a deepening in their personal and spiritual life, some kind of opportunity for conversion and how they approach things."

Boy scouts were meeting in an adjacent building when the fire started, but they were evacuated safely.

Santa Sophia held Wednesday morning mass in a church hall.

The arson investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information should contact the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department at (858) 565-5200 or Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477. Tipsters can remain anonymous and may be eligible for that $5,000 reward.

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