Chase Daniel Alderman seemed to do everything he could to set the United Methodist Church in Castle Rock on fire early Sunday morning, police and congregants said.
Alderman, 21, of Castle Rock went through the empty church setting fire to artificial flowers, a table cloth, cardboard boxes and the pastor's desk, Castle Rock officer Branden McNew said Monday. In all, he set at least six fires — and for no apparent reason, McNew said.
Yet the church, which is more than 100 years old, didn't burn down, and no one was injured.
The pastor is calling it nothing less than a miracle.
"I think everyone believes that the situation could have been much worse, and God was with us," said Vonda McFadden, who has been the church's pastor for two years. "If I hadn't believed in God before Sunday morning, I would believe in God now."
McFadden said there were a number of odd coincidences about the fires that have lead congregation members to believe that the church was somehow divinely spared. For example, she said, one fire burned right up to an old Bible, but left the book untouched. Another fire in McFadden's office was extinguished by an old framed picture of Jesus, which also didn't burn.
Symbolism aside, church members said they're astonished the church is simply standing.
"We have witnessed a miracle," said Linda Bauska, 63, who discovered the remnants of the fires Sunday morning.
Bauska, the chairwoman of the congregation's outreach team, said she showed up at the church, at 241 First Ave., to set up for a special church service commemorating upcoming Veterans Day. She said Monday that she soon noticed a burned bouquet of flowers in the basement, then a broken window, then the remnants of other fires throughout the building.
"What kind of person comes into the house of the Lord and starts lighting fires all over the whole church?" asked Bauska, who was born in Castle Rock and baptized in the church when she was a child.
"We just prayed for him," she said of Alderman.
McFadden said the church's sanctuary was untouched, but Alderman appears to have drank grape juice and eaten bread used for Communion. Other parts of the church had black stains on the walls and smoke damage.
The Sunday morning service went on as planned, even amid the strong smell of smoke. Asked what she said to her congregation, which usually includes about 70 worshippers, McFadden said, "I told them we would be God's people and forgive."
Officer McNew said he considered Alderman a suspect almost immediately after surveying the damage in the church. McNew said he was on patrol around 2 a.m. Sunday near the church when a witness said she'd seen a man wearing black near the church. McNew said he spotted a man, later identified as Alderman, take off running. He said he chased the man up an alley and found him in some bushes.
McNew said Alderman was intoxicated, but there was no reason to take him into custody. The church seemed fine, he said, and there was nothing else suspicious in the area.
But McNew said evidence was later found linking Alderman to the church fires. McNew declined to say what that evidence is, nor what Alderman said during a discussion with officers at the Castle Rock Police station after the fires were discovered Sunday.
McNew said that Alderman showed no signs of mental illness and "did not disclose a motive."
Alderman is being held in the Cowlitz County Jail on suspicion of second-degree arson and second-degree burglary. His bail has been set at $25,000.
McFadden said the church is insured.
"It's just stuff. And it's a building. It's an important building because it's where we worship. But the church is really the people," McFadden said. "We're going to fix it. We've already begun. It will be fine."