SEATTLE (AP) – A man arrested after a suspicious fire severely damaged a Washington state mosque early Saturday had previously caused a ruckus when he interrupted a prayer service there last summer, a mosque official said.
The fire was reported at about 2:45 a.m. Saturday at the Islamic Center of the Eastside in Bellevue. Authorities said that as firefighters doused the flames, police found a 37-year-old man near the building and arrested him for investigation of arson and malicious mischief. The mosque was unoccupied at the time and no injuries were reported.
The fire destroyed the back of the building, but the extent of the damage was not yet clear, mosque board member Tanvir Rahman said in a phone interview. He described the suspect as mentally disturbed – which is how the suspect described himself in at least one of his many prior encounters with the police, court records show.
“He has been there before,” Rahman said. “He came in during a prayer service a few months back and shouted some profanities. Some of the people got him out and the police took him.”
According to a police report on that incident filed in King County District Court, the suspect entered the mosque on the evening of July 28, yelling wildly and waving his arms. When a worshipper asked how he could help the man, the suspect cocked his fist and threatened him, the officer wrote.
Others grabbed him and pushed him outside, and he struck one worshipper, who asked police not to pursue assault charges, the officer wrote. The suspect, who was described in the report as homeless, was cited for disorderly conduct and fourth-degree assault. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a month in jail.
On another occasion, the imam bought him a sandwich at a Subway restaurant, Rahman said.
The suspect, who has not been charged in the mosque fire, has been arrested more than 50 times, including many times for property damage, King County court records show.
Last June, he was arrested after smashing a window at the Nike Town store in downtown Seattle with a rock. When a Seattle police officer asked him why he did it, he responded that he was schizophrenic and wanted to go to jail, the officer noted in an incident report.
“He told me the many people trying to kill him and accuse him of crimes made him believe he should commit the crimes to go to jail,” the officer wrote.
Police spokesman Seth Tyler says investigators believe the man is the sole suspect.
A public defender who represented the man in the Nike Town vandalism did not immediately return an email Saturday. The Associated Press is withholding the man’s name because he has not been charged.
There have been repeated incidents of threats and vandalism at the Bellevue mosque and others in recent months. A man was charged this week with a hate crime for threatening people there on Jan. 6, and a granite sign outside the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in neighboring Redmond was damaged twice.
Religious leaders and others have expressed concern that heated rhetoric during the presidential campaign last year has led to a spike in reported hate crimes.
Given the suspect’s background in the mosque burning, “it’s hard to tell if it’s a bias-motivated crime,” said Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.