CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — A man has been charged with several felonies, including arson and property damage, in connection with an April 18 fire that destroyed a meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri.
The fire occurred at 1048 W Cape Rock Dr. and was first reported shortly before 9:30 that night. Firefighters with several agencies responded to the blaze, but the building was a total loss.
Bystanders told police they had seen a man in a dark hoodie and a large backpack near the church around the time of the fire.
Deputies searched the area and found 45-year-old Christopher Scott Pritchard, who matched the description that witnesses had given to police, walking down Highway 177, about 1.5 miles from the church.
According to a probable cause statement, Pritchard claimed to have been at a friend's house when the fire started. Pritchard agreed to be interviewed at the Sheriff's Office.
Investigators who spoke with Pritchard noticed the odor of smoke, which Pritchard said was from a cigarette, but the odor differed from that of a cigarette, the statement says.
Two days before the fire, the Cape Girardeau Sheriff's Office received a report that Pritchard had allegedly threatened the church's bishop with assault and threatened to burn the church down.
"During the interview, Mr. Pritchard admitted to the previous threats of assaulting the Bishop of the church and also threatening to burn the church down," the probable cause statement says. "Pritchard again said he was visiting a friend on County Road 643 (West Cape Rock Dr.) but denied going inside the church or setting the blaze."
According to the probable cause statement, investigators arrested Pritchard and booked him into jail based on the odor of smoke on his person, his proximity to the church at the time of the fire, witness statements linking him to being near the church around the time of the fire, and his admission to previously making threats to assault the bishop and burn the church down.
Investigators searched Pritchard's backpack and found a laptop computer, a projector, a small set of computer speakers, two extension cords, 21 individually wrapped apples, a cheese grater and other items. The items were valued at an estimate of $1,049.99.
Church members who gave voluntary statements that night said the laptop, the projector, the speakers, the extension cords, the apples and the cheese grater had all been taken from the church building.
Some of the church members who spoke to police said Pritchard had previously made derogatory statements about their religion.
Pritchard faces a first-degree felony charge of property damage motivated by discrimination, a second-degree felony charge of arson, a second-degree felony charge of burglary and a felony charge of stealing.
Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Welker told FOX 13 that Pritchard's property damage charge has been enhanced as a hate crime.