ESCONDIDO (KUSI) – Authorities announced a $10,000 reward today for information leading to the arrest of whoever intentionally set an occupied northern San Diego County mosque ablaze under cover of darkness last month.
“Today we are asking for the public’s help in solving this horrible hate crime,” Escondido police Capt. Ed Varso said. “We cannot do this alone, and we believe that someone has information that will be valuable to our case.”
Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as Islamic Center of Escondido, was torched about 3:15 a.m. March 24. Seven people who were inside the West Sixth Avenue house of worship escaped without injury and were able to extinguish the blaze with a fire extinguisher prior to the arrival of emergency crews.
Video: ATF, FBI offer reward in mosque arson
The fire was “quickly determined to be arson,” Varso said this afternoon during a news conference co-led by Suzanne Turner, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office; and Ernesto Diaz, assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Further evidence of the malicious intent of the crime was graffiti left on the building making reference to last month’s deadly terror attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Dozens of state, federal and local investigators, including personnel with the county Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office, have worked to identify the perpetrator or perpetrators but so far have identified no suspects, Varso told news crews during the briefing at Escondido police headquarters.
While the case remains unsolved, police have sought to protect the mosque from any further harm or harassment, according to Varso.
“As we have been investigating the crime, we’ve also worked diligently to ensure that members of the mosque feel comfortable and safe at their place of worship,” he said. “We are currently working with the leadership of the mosque to improve the facility’s security. In addition, our officers … increased their presence at the mosque immediately following the fire and continue to provide extra patrols in the area.”
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call the FBI at (800) 225-5324. Tipsters may remain anonymous.
Authorities said this week they had not ruled out anything when it comes to who started a small fire at Escondido’s Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque at 318 W. Sixth Ave. around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, March 24.
Believed to be arson, a suspect reportedly left a note referring to the shootings Friday, March 15 that killed 50 people at mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The fire scorched an outside wall and was put out almost immediately by some of the seven worshippers who were inside the Mosque preparing religious activities, authorities said.
Authorities quickly determined this was arson and a hate crime. They have yet to determine who started it.
The Escondido Police Department (EPD) – along with officials from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – held a news briefing Thursday to discuss their investigation into the fire. Apparently, it’s not come up with much.
Law enforcement officials in San Diegos North County – including the FBI – announced at the news conference that a $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.
Early on in the investigation, police said surveillance cameras at the mosque may have captured images of an unknown person breaking a lock to open a gate in the parking lot on the morning of the fire.
On Thursday, Escondido police Lt. Christopher Lick confirmed those surveillance cameras at the mosque were not working at the time of the crime.
He said investigators have been canvassing the neighborhood in search of potential footage caught on other surveillance cameras in the area but, at this point, the lieutenant said police do not have any video footage to release to the media to aid the investigation.
EPD Capt. Edward Varso called on the public for help with leads in this case and added, “We cannot do this alone.”
“Our goal is to protect the community and bring justice to the person or people responsible for the crimes committed at the mosque,” said Varso.
When asked by email this week whether any scenarios, including one in which someone belonging to the Mosque might have staged the incident, Lick said, “Nothing is ruled out. Any theory is possible until proven differently.
At the news conference, according to NBC 7 San Diego, Ernesto Diaz, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for ATF San Diego, said his agency will collaborate with local and state partners until there is an arrest in the case.
“Arson is a crime of violence,” Diaz said. “It can result in death and injury. Fortunately, in this instance, no one was injured. ATF views arson attack against a house of worship as an attack not just on a building, but on a community as a whole.”
At Thursday’s presser, officials remained mum on the contents of what Lick called “vandalism.”
Suzanne Turner, Acting Special Agent in Charge for the San Diego FBI, said officials with the bureau are still trying to determine if this fire was a hate crime. The FBI is the agency in charge of classifying it as such but, first, Turner said agents need to understand the suspects “motivation and bias.”
“We take it (a hate crime) very seriously, especially in a house of worship,” Turner said.
Turner hopes the $10,000 reward offered jointly by the investigating agencies is enough to bring forth fresh leads. She said anyone with information on the identity of the arson suspect can call the San Diego FBI at its 24-hour tip line at (800) CALL-FBI.
The representatives from all three agencies said they will continue to work to help the community feel safe in any place of worship.
“Escondido is a diverse community. Escondido is a caring community,” said Varso. “And Escondido is a community that will not tolerate crimes committed against its places of worship and peace.”
Varso said the EPD boosted patrols in the area immediately after the fire and continues to keep a close eye on the mosque.
The police captain also said officers were working with leaders at the mosque to improve the security system around the building.
Dar-ul-Arqam was built four years ago in Escondido, a community in San Diegos North County. Today, the mosque serves several hundred members.
The fire left many members of the mosques community feeling on edge. However, it did not stop members from using the building as their place of worship.
We wont stop praying. We wont stop gathering, Yusef Miller, a member of the Muslim community in Escondido told NBC 7 on the day of the arson attack at Dar-ul-Arqam.
Miller said mosque members would remain vigilant and heightened in their awareness but added, Were still resolved in the idea that there are people here that love us and support us.
Meanwhile, an online fundraising page was created on a website called LaunchGood to collect donations through April 6 to repair the mosque. That account is titled We Stand With Escondido Mosque and, as of the fundraisers close, had raised more than $5,000 for the Islamic worship center.
Dar-ul-Arqam was built four years ago and serves a community of several hundred people in Escondido, Miller said.
Were not surprised by this incident, Miller said. But, were very on edge right now.
Dustin Craun, the head of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in San Diego, said his civil rights group stands with the mosque.
We are grateful that someone was inside the mosque and was able to act quickly to put the fire out. We ask anyone with information to come forward and contact the Escondido Police Department. We stand in solidarity with our community members who attend the Islamic Center of Escondido, he said in a statement.
A Sunday night March 24 vigil attracted at least 100 Escondido residents to the downtown mosque that was hit by hate arson earlier that morning. For more on the attack, see story below.
Benjamin Martinez posted video of the event held at Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque at 318 W. Sixth Ave. in downtown Escondido. The one-hour vigil featured support and prayers from the community on behalf of the mosque.