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Arsonist being sought after fire at Fort Pierce mosque where Pulse nightclub killer prayed, investigators say

By Adam Sacasa and Mike Clary, For Sun Sentinel, On 13 September 2016, Read Original
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As he was leaving, the man "was shaking his hand," Thompson said. "We're not sure, but it is possible he sustained burns on that hand."

Wilfredo Ruiz, a spokesman for the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the suspected arson a hate crime. "That's how the community feels," Ruiz said. "This small community is being targeted."

But Thompson said investigators were not ready to make that call.

"We do not have evidence right now that says it's a hate crime," Thompson said. "Of course, with what is going on, and of course because this is a place of worship, and because this occurred on the anniversary of 9/11, we're going to explore that."

At least two 911 calls made around 12:30 a.m. reported flames coming from the roof of the center at 1104 W. Midway Road.

The surveillance video and the recordings of emergency calls have been released in hopes that the public will come forward with clues, Thompson said.

In the video the suspected arsonist is seen riding a motorcycle described as "a Harley-Davidson-style motorcycle, with a low seat and higher handlebars," according to Thompson.

He said the man wore jeans with distinctive embroidery on the rear pants pockets, a button-front shirt and a boonie-style fishing cap.

The extent of the damage to the center has not yet been determined, but Thompson called it "substantial."

Thompson said the sheriff's office is asking the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to join the investigation currently underway by local authorities and the State Fire Marshal's Office. Investigators would be on the scene for days, Thompson said.

Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, killed 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in June and was known to worship at the mosque. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police.

Leaders at the Islamic Center have said that since the nightclub shooting the facility has received threats and that security had been stepped up.

Ruiz, an attorney who serves as communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, said the fire broke out shortly after the last worshippers had left the mosque late Sunday.

"To firebomb a place barely an hour after parishioners are leaving a place is clearly meant to terrorize," he said. "This is a political hate message being sent."

In a statement, the council's Florida chapter praised the St. Lucie Sheriff's office for its "prompt response to this tragic situation."

Hamaad Rahman, the mosque's assistant imam, said members of his congregation are left saddened and frightened by the fire.

"We're stronger than that so I feel like we'll be able to pull through from this," he said. "As time goes by, hopefully we'll be able to rebuild."

Georgia Parsons, 66, who lives across the street from the mosque, said she was getting ready to go to bed at about 12:30 a.m. Monday when she saw the flashing lights of deputy's cars and fire trucks through her bedroom window.

"When we came out, the flames were just shooting out of the back of the building," Parsons said. "We didn't see anything before that looked suspicious or anything."

Parsons said that since the Orlando massacre, she has heard people in passing cars yell out threats.

"America was founded on religious freedom. Those people [at the Islamic Center] haven't done anything wrong," said Parsons. "Just because that one crazy guy went to church there?"

"I just think it's sad that you have to fight hate with hate," Parsons said. "It's ridiculous."

Thompson said that relations between the Islamic Center and the non-Muslim community have been peaceful as of late. "We have had open and clear communication with the folks at the Islamic Center, and we have received no recent threats," he said.

"A fire at any place of worship is alarming," Thompson added, "regardless of the circumstances."

He said authorities had received no claims of responsibility for setting the fire.

"Members of the mosque are very concerned, for not only their well-being but the well-being of the community," Thompson said. "We want to ensure their safety as well as everyone else in the community."

In July, a Port St. Lucie man was charged with felony battery after a worshipper was beaten in the mosque parking lot.

In a statement posted to its Facebook page early Monday, the Fort Pierce Islamic Center said, "It is with a very heavy heart that we have to announce that last night around midnight, there was an arson attack on our Mosque."

The statement advised those planning to attend the Eid Prayer to go to another Fort Pierce mosque.

"Please keep us in your Du'as and prayers," the statement concluded. Du'as is defined as invocation or act of supplication.

The Anti-Defamation League, Florida Region, issued a statement condemning the suspected arson and offering support for the Muslim community.

"While the investigation into this incident is still underway, the congregation should know that it is not alone," said regional director Hava L. Holzhauer. "Whenever a house of worship is desecrated, it results in a ripple effect of fear throughout the community."

Eid al-Adha, the four-day Islamic festival of sacrifice began Monday. Because of the extra traffic that was anticipated, Thompson said sheriff's deputies were scheduled to be on hand in the morning to assist with parking and traffic flow.

"This is a terrible tragedy, not only for the Islamic Center, but for our community," Thompson said.

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed ot this report.

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