On May 22, ATF Special Agents responded to two church fires in Douglas, Ariz., along with the Douglas Fire Department and Douglas Police Department. The fire was at the Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church, both located in close proximity within the same block.
People had reported a fire at the Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and authorities arrived to find huge clouds of smoke rising from the church and the nearby vacant two-story residence. While the fire department battled the fire at this location, smoke was also seen at the First Presbyterian Church, which is located right next to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church located at the corner of 11th Street and D Avenue.
ATF Special Agents investigated, in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, to figure out the cause of the fires. When investigators entered the First Presbyterian Church, they discovered extensive fire damage around the altar, especially in the northwest corner, which had collapsed into the basement or crawlspace area. They discovered a bottle of lighter fluid and parts of potential lighters behind the offering table, near the altar.
On May 23, valuable evidence was uncovered when security footage from a nearby daycare center was retrieved. The video caught a series of events on May 22, starting at about 10:38 a.m. A blue Pontiac Aztec pulled into the alleyway next to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, and a man carrying a plastic bag exited the car and walked north along the wall. The man then disappeared from view, only reappearing moments later, going south towards the First Presbyterian Church. The man was eventually spotted running north along the western side of the church’s classroom building before returning to the car. He drove west down the alley towards E Avenue and smoke rose from the unoccupied two-story residence.
ATF agents identified the suspect as Eric Ridenour, a resident of Douglas, Arizona, as the registered owner of the blue Pontiac Aztec.
On May 23, a search warrant was obtained on Ridenour’s house and car. During the search, ATF’s Accelerant Detection Canine, “Zeta,” found the presence of accelerates on pants and shoes found inside Ridenour’s home, which matched the apparel seen in the surveillance video. A green hat similar to the one worn by the suspect was also discovered in Ridenour’s car. Agents also noticed Ridenour’s unusual walk, which matched the figure seen on the security video.
Further surveillance footage obtained at a Walmart in Douglas, Arizona, showed Ridenour wearing the same clothes as the person in the daycare center videos. This video was shot around the time the flames were thought to have started.
Both Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church suffered significant damage. The fire at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church nearly destroyed the whole structure, while the roof of the First Presbyterian Church fell early on May 23.