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Calif. Church Fire Investigated

November 9, 1999

STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) _ A fire that gutted a Roman Catholic church is being investigated as an arson and possible hate crime, authorities said Monday. A swastika had been painted on an outside wall.

The fire at the Church of the Presentation was discovered by a nun who was opening the church for the Sunday evening Mass, said Marty Galindo, an arson investigator for the Stockton Fire Department.

The fire caused an estimated $700,000 damage to an altar and a classroom area, burning pews and laminated beams. The classroom was destroyed and much of the main church sustained water and smoke damage.

While firefighters extinguished the blaze, they discovered graffiti on a statue of the Virgin Mary and a swastika on the exterior of a church building, police spokesman Doug Anderson said.

A Mass had been completed in the church about an hour before the fire was discovered. Candles were used during the service and haven’t been excluded as a possible cause, Galindo said. Officials said the church hadn’t received any threats or hate mail before the fire.

The fire closed the church elementary school, which has about 300 students. Many students and their parents came by Monday to watch investigators work behind the yellow crime-scene tape.

Julie Williams, a Sunday school teacher and parishioner, said she had a hard time explaining the fire to her son, a student at the school.

``He was devastated. He didn’t understand,″ she said. ``We’ll have to do something for the children so they can deal with this.″

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