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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Investigation into mosque fire could take week or more

BY STAN FINGER
The Wichita Eagle

It could easily be a week or more before investigators determine what started the fire that heavily damaged a mosque in west Wichita early Monday morning. The damage to the Islamic Association of Mid Kansas at 3406 W. Taft is so extensive it is hampering detection efforts, Wichita fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said.

"With the amount of damage we have, a lot of (burn) patterns are lost," Bevis said.

Those patterns can be a blueprint to the source and nature of the fire, investigators have said.

"We have to map out everything as much as we can," Bevis said.

That means talking to anyone who had access to the mosque, anyone who had been in there recently, any neighbors who may have seen or heard something.

"We're going back over everything," Bevis said.

Authorities will be reviewing information from anti-Islam letters sent to the mosque in recent months to see whether anything in them may be linked to the fire, he said.

Abdelkarim Jibril, president of the Islamic Association of Mid Kansas, told The Eagle on Monday that the letters put down Islam, called the prophet Muhammad a pig, and enclosed drawings that mocked him.

The mosque received about eight of the letters starting four to six months ago, but they had stopped about a month ago, he said.

Jibril said the mosque hadn't turned the letters over to authorities before the fire.

Bevis said authorities were unaware of the letters until they read about them in The Eagle.

The fire, which was reported about 12:45 a.m. Monday, caused an estimated $130,000 in damage to the mosque.

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been called in to assist with the investigation.

"We're not ruling anything out," Bevis said.

The ATF is notified any time a fire involves something that might be of federal interest, Bevis said, and a mosque meets that criteria.

The FBI was also alerted because a mosque was involved, he said.

Sporty, an accelerant-detecting canine with the ATF, has gone through the debris, Bevis said, but lab results will need to confirm any evidence found by the dog.

"Sporty can't testify," Bevis said.

The fire spread quickly and gutted the attic.

Because the fire involves a religious structure, officials have said, investigators are taking many steps to gather and preserve evidence.

"What our job requires us to do — following a scientific method — that guarantees you slow down, look at everything, take everything into account," Bevis said.

"We're not going to rush into anything. We want to know what we don't know."

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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