Church officials push on after bus fire, pray for suspect

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Items scattered at the scene of a fire that destroyed three vehicles at First Baptist Church of Liberty City confirm a “human component” to the blaze – but Pastor Paul Michael Vacca expects the flames were accidental.

The Gregg County fire marshal's office hasn't made a final determination on that aspect of the case.

“We do pray for that person,” Vacca said Tuesday. “We prayed for that person today in a staff meeting, that whatever human element was involved, God will use it in their life for some good.”

Based on the scene and a prior gas theft, church officials' theories about the early morning fire March 27 took shape quickly as the Gregg County fire marshal examined the scene of the parking lot burn. Mark Moore released a brief update on the incident Thursday morning, noting he and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms have concluded on-site investigation.

“All of the scene information has been gathered, and analysis of the information will continue,” the fire marshal reported April 5. “While we have found that the fire was caused by human action, it is undetermined at this time if the fire was accidental or intentional.”

A $1,000 Crime Stoppers award is available for information that leads to an arrest in the case.

Officials suspect the fire began before dawn at the deserted church campus at 4714 FM 1252. From four vehicles sitting side-by-side at the rear of the property, three burned in a domino effect east to west with the wind, starting with a Ford passenger van. The fourth was spared through the work of Sabine firefighters.

The church's vehicles had been damaged before, and recently, in what Vacca suspects was a similar incident, possibly by the same actor(s).

“In January, one of our gas tanks was drilled and they stole gas from it,” he said. Last week, “Based on some things that were left there – near the buses – that were recovered, it looked like someone brought things to steal gas again and then left in a hurry,” after the fire began.

“Whether it was the same person or not, we have no idea. It obviously went wrong, and they had to leave quickly, and they left some of their personal effects behind.”

Waiting on the final report, Vacca was confident it wasn't a case of arson but, rather, an accident from attempted theft that got out of hand.

Disappointed but not discouraged, the church moves forward, he said, praying for whoever was involved in the blaze.

“We want to be good stewards, so we're saddened that there has been a loss at all, but that doesn't stop us at all,” Vacca concluded. “They're God's buses, and the ministry he's called us to is bigger than the buses.”

Anyone with information about the incident should contact the Gregg County Sheriff's Office at 903-236-8400.

Anonymous tips can be submitted to Gregg County Crime Stoppers via 903-236-STOP (7867) or through greggcountycrimestoppers.org. The organization will pay up to $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for a felony crime. Tips to the group can also be anonymously submitted using the 'P3tips' app.

Leads can be sent to ATF through the Arson Hotline (1888-ATF-FIRE) or in the agency's new 'reportit” app.

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