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Victoria mosque fire ruled arson

By Jon Wilcox
Feb. 8, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.
Updated Feb. 8, 2017 at 12:47 p.m.

FILE: The Victoria Islamic Center erupted into flames on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.

FILE: The Victoria Islamic Center erupted into flames on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.   Barclay Fernandez for The Victoria Advocate

Arson caused the blaze that gutted the Victoria Islamic Center on Jan. 28, investigators announced Wednesday.

"We appeal to the arsonist or arsonists to put an end to this tragedy and surrender to law enforcement," mosque members said in a news release issued immediately after the investigators' announcement. "The blessing of not having loss of lives or physical injuries makes it easier to try to correct the wrong and fix the damage before it’s too late."

Investigators said evidence does not indicate the fire was a "biased crime."

The investigators are working feverishly to follow all leads that will lead to the arrest of the person or persons responsible, said Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake in a written statement.

The Victoria Islamic Center was destroyed by fire in the predawn hours. Mosque leaders have withheld condemnation and speculation since the fire.

"We are saddened and alarmed by the outcome of the investigation. Despite several indications of arson, we offered prayers of hope that the cause of fire would be accident rather than intentional act," the release said.

A reward totaling $30,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest or indictment of those responsible for burning the mosque. The Victoria Islamic Center is offering $10,000 of that reward with Crime Stoppers and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives each contributing another $10,000.

The Victoria Fire Marshal's Office was aided in its investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office and the ATF. Although arson is now thought to have started the fire, mosque leaders are continuing to ask community members to refrain from politicizing the event.

"Houses of worship are a sacred place in this country, and ATF is committed to devoting the necessary resources to solving this crime,” said Fred Milanowski, the special agent in charge of the ATF Houston Field Division. “We are working closely with our local law enforcement and emergency service partners on this investigation and ask that anyone with information about this incident please report it.”

In their news release, the mosque members reinforced their appreciation for the outpouring of support at the community and national level. In about 11 days, a Gofundme.com page created to gather funds for rebuilding the mosque had raised more than $1.1 million.

"Our cry for help crossed geographical boundaries of donors of many states and over 90 countries," the news release said. "It crossed religious sects and faiths. It crossed political affiliations of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Our 'human family' and spiritual friends heard us and responded with love, support and donations."

Anyone with any information about this crime should contact the ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3474) or Crime Stoppers at 361-572-4200. Individuals can also submit information through the mobile ReportIt app, available both on Google Play and the Apple App Store. All individuals providing tips can remain anonymous.

Mosque leadership also had praise for city investigators.

"Special thanks go to the investigation team headed by Tom Legler and Taner Drake," the release said.

Legler said investigators had sent forensic evidence to the State Fire Marshal's Forensic Arson Laboratory in Austin.

Mosque officials said they would continue to keep their trust in the authorities' capabilities.

"Our Islamic faith permits victims to seek justice through the legal system, but at the same time it encourages its followers to show forgiveness," the release said. "Therefore, we declare that spiritually we will strive hard to shield our hearts from negativity or animosity and to channel our energy instead on the hope, desire and determination to rebuild."

For a special online presentation of the Victoria Advocate's ongoing coverage of the fire, please click here.

Victoria Islamic Center issued the following statement:

Press Release

February, 08, 2017

We would like to start by thanking Fire, police, state, and federal agencies for their hard work. Special thanks go to the investigation team headed by Tom Legler & Taner Drake. We ask our members and members of the public to give time, space, and informational assistance for law enforcement agencies to do their work. We would also like to share with you the following:

1. The Victoria Islamic Center, on behalf of its members, would like to state that we are saddened & alarmed by the outcome of the investigation. Despite several indications of arson, we offered prayers of hope that the cause of fire would be accident rather than intentional act.

2. Since the first hour after we were informed of the fire, our members decided to act rather than react. Our first press release through Facebook was posted at 3:29 am, the morning of the fire, was titled: We will rebuild with love. The hashtag #rebuildwithlove has since been our rallying cry. Despite local, national, and international media coverage and hints of political divisiveness we stayed above the negativity and adopted a message of unity and togetherness. Our cry for help crossed geographical boundaries of donors of many states and over 90 countries, it crossed religious sects and faiths, it crossed political affiliations of democrats & republicans, liberals & conservatives. Our “human family” and spiritual friends heard us and responded with love, support, and donations.

3. American Muslims have suffered from, and advocated against, stereotyping and bigotry. We have always asked that we not be painted with a broad brush because of the evil acts of few individuals claiming to be Muslims. Therefore, it would be hypocritical of us to point the blame on any group of people based on assumptions and stereotype. Our Islamic faith calls upon us to not judge others, let alone base such judgement on assumptions and suspicion. Therefore, our message of unity, of hope, and inclusiveness will continue.

4. Our Islamic faith permits victims to seek justice through the legal system but at the same time it encourages its followers to show forgiveness. Therefore, we declare that spiritually we will strive hard to shield our hearts from negativity or animosity and to channel our energy instead on the hope, desire, and determination to rebuild.

5. We appeal to the arsonist or arsonists to put an end to this tragedy and surrender to law enforcement. The blessing of not having loss of lives or physical injuries makes it easier to try to correct the wrong and fix the damage before it’s too late

6. We encourage the public to come forward with any information or leads that could be useful for law enforcement to solve the case. The Victoria Islamic Center, independent of the separate rebuilding fund, is offering a monetary reward of $10,000 to any individual who comes forward with information that can directly lead to arrest. We will work closely with law enforcement to work out the logistics of granting the award. Tips can be called to ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3474).

Callers who want to remain anonymous by can call Crime Stoppers at 361-572-4200, again this number is 361-572-4200

7. Finally, we kindly ask the public to continue to include us in their prayers. We also pray for our Victoria community to remain united and safe. May God protect & bless you & your families, may God protect & bless our global human family, and may God protect & bless the United States of America.


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