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Maine man charged with hate crime offenses in connection with Massachusetts church fire

The December fire severely damaged the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church, home to a predominantly Black congregation in Springfield

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Flanked by church members, the Rev. Dr. Terlynn L. Curry Avery, pastor at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church, speaks following a fire that heavily damaged the Springfield, Massachusetts, church. (Photo by Presbytery of Southern New England)

LOUISVILLE ­— The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts charged a Maine man in federal court Thursday in connection with setting the Dec. 28, 2020 fire that destroyed the predominantly Black Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

According to a Department of Justice news release, Dushko Vulchev, 44, of Houlton, Maine, was charged by criminal complaint with four counts of damage to religious property involving fire and one count of use of fire to commit a federal felony. Vulchev is currently in state custody and will make an initial appearance in federal court in Springfield at a later date.

According to court documents, an intentionally set fire caused extensive damage to the church in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 2020. In court documents, the government alleges that Vulchev set the Dec. 28 fire. The government also alleges that Vulchev is also responsible for several other fires set on church property and for a series of tire slashings on church property and in the surrounding area. The additional fires alleged include a fire at the back door of the church on Dec. 13, 2020, and two additional fires near the rear door of the church on Dec. 15, 2020. Investigation, including the review of security video and location data from Vulchev’s cellphone, showed Vulchev at or near the scene of many of the alleged crimes, including the Dec. 28 fire that severely damaged the church.

A Dec. 28, 2020 fire did substantial damage to Martin Luther King,Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Presbytery of Southern New England)

In addition, according to charging documents, a subsequent search of Vulchev’s vehicle and electronic devices revealed messages from Vulchev demonstrating Vulchev’s hatred of Black people, including a December 2020 message to “eliminate all [N-word].” The devices, court documents say, include images “demonstrating Vulchev’s racial animus toward Black people.”

The charge of damage to religious property involving fire provides for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000. The charge of use of fire to commit a federal felony provides for a sentence of at least 10 years in prison in addition to any sentence received for the other charged crimes. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts indicates that the details contained in the criminal complaint are allegations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The logo of the Presbytery of Southern New England

In a separate news release, the Presbytery of Southern New England said it “stands in solidarity with MLK, which is a member congregation, and will be working with the congregation to rebuild their physical space, knowing that the worship and mission of God cannot be contained by any building.”

“Nonetheless,” the statement said, “buildings are sacred gathering spaces for the community, and we will work side by side at the direction of MLK in all rebuilding efforts. We also intend to support and accompany the congregation during this next phase of the criminal legal system’s work.”

“As Christians,” the presbytery statement stated, “we are grieved by the pervasiveness of hatred, racism and xenophobia which not only prompted this attack, but which injures, kills and destroys people and communities all over our country, and worldwide. We believe that all people are created in the Imago Dei, the image of God. Racism is a sin, and we name it as such. Hatred towards any people, and violence of any kind, is unacceptable.”

“As a community of faith, we stand for justice,” the presbytery statement said. “Justice is God’s restoration of all Creation. This restoration involves healing humanity’s corrupt and broken social relationships and institutions, as well as the human heart. As a church in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we engage in justice work as a sign of what God is doing in the midst of Creation today.

“Patterning our hearts after Christ’s own love, we labor in hope of a more just and peaceful social order. And while we do so, we strive to live peaceably in anticipation of God’s new Creation. We commit ourselves to the words of the prophet Micah: ‘to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.’”

The presbytery’s statement was signed by four officials: Moderator Stephen Hart, Vice-Moderator the Rev. J.C. Cadwallader, Stated Clerk the Rev. David Baer and General Presbyter the Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo.

Martin Luther King ,Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, before the Dec. 28, 2020 fire. (Photo courtesy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church)

In its own statement, Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church thanked law enforcement officials on both federal and state levels “for their investigation and support. We look forward to officials continuing the important work of bringing justice in this case. We stand ready to offer our support.”

“We also thank the Springfield community,” church officials said, “for its steadfast support of MLK Church during these challenging times. Because of the support we have received, we have been able to continue our ministry to the larger community.”

“MLK Church has a long and proud history of faith, service and justice,” said the church’s statement, signed by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery, and Ruling Elder Rachelle Lee, Clerk of Session. “That history includes embracing all of God’s people. Thus, while we know that the perpetrator must be brought to justice, the leaders and members of MLK Church are challenging each other and the larger community to be emissaries of goodwill, to work for healing and restoration.”

“We are a small church,” the church leaders said, “but we have a mighty reach because every time we gather, we gather in the name of Jesus Christ, and he said all things are possible with him. We believe healing is possible, and in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Only love can drown out hate.’

“Thus, we will continue to spread love.”

Read this Presbyterian News Service story about Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Presbyterian Church’s response to the fire.

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