The Niagara County district attorney's office will "pursue to the limit" a racially motivated arson at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Town of Niagara last summer, District Attorney Peter L. Broderick said Wednesday.
"This definitely was a bias-related crime," Broderick said. "It's one we intend to pursue to the limit.
"There has been a lot of effort put into solving (the arson) because of the nature of the crime," Broderick said. "This is just not going to happen in Niagara County without being dealt with in as strong a fashion as possible."
Brian Duncan, 17, of 3811 Rhode Island Ave., Town of Niagara, was arraigned last week on third-degree arson and burglary charges stemming from the Aug. 20 fire, which caused about $250,000 damage to the Kingdom Hall, at 3050 Nevada Ave. in the Town of Niagara.
Another man, Todd Biro, 23, of 3119 Portland St., Town of Niagara, was arraigned on a burglary count with Duncan resulting from a break-in at the hall before the fire. Both pleaded innocent.
Niagara County sheriff's deputies and state police who investigated the crime said the hall had previously been the target of several burglaries and acts of vandalism. Members of the predominantly black congregation also had reported their cars were vandalized while parked in hall's lot.
"There had been a lot of discrimination and harassment going on there for quite some time," Sheriff's Deputy Peter Clark said.
The harassment, he said, occurred in the form of racial slurs being spray-painted on the outside of the hall, damage to the building's siding and broken windows.
Clark said the building, in the town's Belden Center area, was previously owned by the Niagara-Wheatfield School District and housed the Nevada Avenue School. The Jehovah's Witnesses purchased the building about a decade ago, converting it to a Kingdom Hall.
The hall was home to two separate congregations of about 100 members each. One of the congregations, Clark said, comprised predominantly black members from Niagara Falls.
One member, who requested anonymity, recalled several incidents of harassment, including one during worship.
"They even threw a stink bomb in the building while we were having service," she said. "It got so bad that the elders (of the congregation) had to stand guard to watch over our cars."
Dennis Brown, presiding overseer for the central congregation said he suspected the culprits might have been motivated against the religion of the congregation as much as their race.
"I personally hadn't ever leaned toward the racial aspect. Without question, I think it was one of the factors," he said.
Clark was joined in the investigation by Deputy Inspector Thomas Beilein, Deputy John Koelle and State Police Investigator Frank Panza.
Clark said investigators were led to Duncan and Biro after interviewing neighbors and witnesses who placed them at the arson scene. That information was presented to a grand jury, which handed up an indictment against Duncan last week.
Duncan also faces two counts each of third-degree assault and second-degree aggravated harassment stemming from an earlier attack on two black teen-agers during which racially biased remarks allegedly were made.
Broderick said that in both cases, Duncan is charged under a section of state penal law mandating stiffer penalties for bias-related crimes in which a victim is assaulted, harassed or threatened because of race, color or religion.