May 18, 2007

Arrest made in St. Anne Church fire

By Mary Ann Wyand

(Listen to this story being read)

Five weeks after fire destroyed historic St. Anne Church in New Castle during the early morning hours of Holy Saturday, Henry County authorities arrested William L. Abbott, 33, of New Castle on felony charges of arson, burglary and theft.

Henry County prosecutor Kit Crane said Abbott was arrested on May 10 and charged with three Class A felony counts of arson for endangering the lives of others, setting fire to a house of worship and causing a loss greater than $5,000.

New Castle firefighter Jack Thurman injured his back while battling the April 7 blaze that gutted the 83-year-old brick church and Henry County landmark.

In a May 10 telephone interview, Crane said Abbott was also charged with a Class B felony of burglary and a Class D felony of theft.

Abbott, who is a convicted felon with an extensive criminal history, is being held at the Henry County Jail.

Crane said bond on the underlying offenses and habitual offender offense was set at $340,000, which he hopes is enough to secure Abbott’s attendance at trial if bond is posted.

“It’s been a great effort on the part of the New Castle Police Department, the Henry County Sheriff’s Department, the Indiana State Police, the federal … Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators and the New Castle Fire Department,” Crane said. “Those folks have … worked really hard over the last few weeks. [The investigation] culminated within the last few days.”

The probable cause affidavit stated that investigators determined the fire was caused by “open flame ignition to available materials.”

The affidavit also stated that “the main body of the fire originated within the northern end of the basement meeting room, and that there were three other separate areas of burning within the sacristy, north hall and server’s room.”

The affidavit also noted that Abbott’s fingerprints were identified on a full bottle of altar wine taken from a locked cabinet in the church and discarded in a dumpster. A silver goblet and several gold canisters were among the sacred church property recovered there.

Several central Indiana news sources reported that Henry County Superior Court Judge Michael Peyton entered not-guilty pleas on Abbott’s behalf on May 11. His trial is set to begin on Sept. 11.

Those sources also reported that Abbott denied starting the fire, but admitted he entered the church through an unlocked basement window with two men hours before fire gutted the church. He has refused to identify the other men.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said last week he is pleased that authorities were able to make an arrest in the arson case.

“Anyone who would do such a thing definitely needs help,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “[The arrest] may prevent other similar crimes in other places. We pray for all those involved in the Holy Saturday tragedy at St. Anne [Church], … including those who may have caused such anguish and pain.”

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown, said on May 10 she is “relieved to know that progress has been made in the arson investigation.”

Sister Shirley praised police and fire officials who investigated the arson and said she hopes the arrest will prevent any further harm in the community.

“I never expected [an arrest] to come quite this soon,” she said. “I am certainly relieved and at peace. I truly, truly believe it is because of all the prayers that whole week [after the fire] that the parishioners came to pray at the prayer center. We have continued to put a petition in at Mass asking the Holy Spirit to guide the investigative team, and I just truly believe that God answered those prayers.”

Masses are celebrated in the basement of the Parish Life Center, Sister Shirley said, and the spiritual life of St. Anne Parish continues through the sacraments.

She said seven children received first Communion in the basement worship space two weekends ago.

“One little boy said to his grandmother, as they were coming here for reconciliation, ‘Grandma, I wish we could have [first Communion] in church,’ ” Sister Shirley said. “So we talked a little bit about that at our Masses. It’s a part of the loss. … I think it’s good to point out the other losses as a result of the loss of the church. … We talked about what was essential and what was nonessential. When it came to first Holy Communion, of course, the essential is receiving the Lord no matter where we do that.” †

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