Homeless man arrested on suspicion of setting historic LA church on fire

A homeless man was in custody on Monday, Sept. 19, for allegedly starting a fire that destroyed a historic church in South Los Angeles and left three firefighters injured, authorities said.

Carlos Diaz, 23, was arrested Sunday and booked on suspicion of arson of a structure, with additional charges pending, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The fire was reported at 2:22 a.m. on Sept. 11 at the two-story Victory Baptist Church, 4802 S. McKinley Ave.

“LAFD Arson Investigators and the multi-agency House of Worship Arson Task Force initiated an investigation into the fire’s cause,” an LAFD statement said. “Initial information did not immediately reveal any evidence of an intentionally set fire; however, their (investigators’) persistence later uncovered security footage to help connect the dots.”

The joint investigation included personnel from the Los Angeles School Police Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators were aided by eyewitnesses.

About 150 firefighters were sent to the fire on Sept. 11.

“Crews initially made entry to find heavy smoke inside the structure,” Nicholas Prange, a LAFD spokesman, said in a statement. “As firefighters made entry, inevitably introducing more air to the conditions inside, fire behavior worsened quickly. Approximately 30 minutes after the arrival of firefighters, there was a structural collapse inside, trapping several LAFD members.”

Crews quickly rescued three firefighters. One was taken to a hospital in moderate condition, a second finished battling the fire and was later hospitalized in fair condition, and a third followed up with care on his own after the incident, Prange said.

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Victory Baptist Church was a spiritual center of Los Angeles’ Black community for decades, and a site of major significance for gospel music and the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson was one of many noted gospel singers to perform there, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church a handful of times.

The church was founded by Arthur Atlas Peters on Easter Sunday in 1943, and moved into the McKinley Avenue building in 1944. Pastor W. Edward Jenkins has vowed that the church will continue on.

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