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Church damage unintentional, teen says
Arson suspect claims he only meant to burn a piece of clothing in garbage

The 17-year-old suspect in an arson that caused $250,000 in damages to a vacant but architecturally significant church in North Buffalo told police that he only meant to burn a piece of clothing belonging to another young person in the structure, officials said Friday.

Jonathan D. Booth, 17, has been charged with arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment for what he claimed was the unintended damage he caused to the church at Colvin and Tacoma avenues late Saturday afternoon.

Now there are questions about the future of the structure.

The building had been purchased by the Korean United Methodist Church more than a decade ago but was abandoned six years ago.

Mayor Byron W. Brown told The Buffalo News on Friday that officials of the Korean church have informally asked the city's Permits and Inspections Department for permission to demolish the historic building.

"Its a beautiful building in a very stable neighborhood and we are going to require the church go through every single step of the process of seeking permission to demolish the structure," the mayor said.

Brown said the city is likely to begin a Housing Court case next month against the church for the physical state of the property and its grounds. The neglect generated numerous neighborhood complaints about vandals, trespassers and unkept grass and grounds.

Brown stressed that the Korean United Methodist Church and not city taxpayers would bear the full cost of demolition and said he would expect the church "would have a very steep climb" to get permission to tear down rather than sell the historic church building.

The mayor said fire marshals and police officials told him Booth admitted he set fire to an article of another person's clothing in garbage at the rear of the first floor of the church "out of anger."

Booth "did confess to setting the fire and said there were other people in the building when it occurred and he had a conflict with the person" whose clothing item he set on fire, the mayor said.

Brown said fire marshals did "excellent work" in putting together tips from the community and other police agencies to track down Booth and take him into custody early Friday.

In recent years the vacant church, to the annoyance of neighborhood residents, had become an informal and illegal meeting place for area teens.

One firefighter suffered a leg injury fighting the Saturday fire.

Smoke and flames could be seen for miles, and traffic in that area was blocked for several hours.

Representatives of the Korean United Methodist Church, could not be reached Friday evening.

email: mgryta@buffnews.com