Five months later, ATF declares Minneapolis church fire an arson

Witnesses said they saw a man break into the church moments before the fire erupted — yet the ATF took five months to publicly declare this case a suspected arson.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church was apparently set ablaze by an arsonist. (Twitter/CrimeWatchMinneapolis)
The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church was apparently set ablaze by an arsonist. (Twitter/CrimeWatchMinneapolis)

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) took five months to declare a fire that damaged a Catholic church in Minneapolis an arson and release images of a person of interest.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church was engulfed in flames in April. The fire damaged the 100-year-old building’s structure, roof and bell tower. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, rescuing people who were still inside. Now, many months later, the ATF has just revealed that the church was apparently the victim of an arson attack.

This likely comes as no surprise to the church’s pastor, who reported seeing a man break in to the building just before the fire erupted. “Somebody broke into the church and then we don’t know what happened,” the pastor said very shortly after the fire erupted.

A longtime church employee later seconded this observation. “The door in the back, it looked like somebody had broken in,” said Paula Quinn.

“Surveillance footage shows an individual who was present in the area around the time when smoke started billowing from the church,” ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jeff Reed said in a Monday press release. “We believe this person has valuable information related to this fire, and we’re looking to the public to help us identify the individual.”

The bureau released a picture of the person of interest alongside a video that appears to show him attempting to enter the church on the day of the fire.

The video was captured by a Ring device. Ring is an Amazon company that produces camera-enabled doorbells and other security devices. The company has also partnered with over 2,000 police agencies and fire departments. This partnership has created a frequently used resource for investigators. Last year, local law enforcement agencies around the nation made over 22,000 requests for images captured by Ring devices, according to the Financial Times.

It is exceedingly easy for law enforcement to obtain Ring footage; they don’t even need a warrant in most cases, much to the chagrin of watchdogs, privacy activists and lawmakers. However, a St. Paul ATF spokesperson told Alpha News that the agency does “not partner with Ring.” While this could be a factor contributing to how long it took to release footage of the person of interest, the bureau said it held out because it didn’t want to tell the public more than necessary.

“Typically we will not put something out until we have exhausted all the leads that we have available in the case. A lot of times these types of things can be solved without reaching out to the public,” a spokesperson said.

The ATF also isn’t responsible for the reward money being offered in exchange for information about the person of interest. Rather, it was provided by the International Association of Arson Investigators, a private trade group.

Meanwhile, the church is slated for demolition after the city deemed it structurally unsafe, per KSTP.