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Arsons lead to warning for churches in Rockingham County

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ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, N.C. -- Every church, synagogue and temple in Rockingham County is getting a packet of more than 20 pages outlining arson and crime prevention tips for places of worship.

The effort is on behalf of the Rockingham County Fire Marshal's Office and Sheriff's Office, in light of at least four church arsons reported in the area since December 22 of last year.

Fire Marshal Robert Cardwell said they have not caught the suspect yet, so it's time to put places of worship on alert to defend themselves.

He advises making sure church property is well-lit all night long, and suggests having some sort of security system installed.

"If you can afford to put an alarm system in your church," Cardwell added, " By all means, you should."

Tuesday night, fire and police officials invited more than 40 Methodist churches in the area to meet and discuss the packet, designed to prevent arson, vandalism and break-ins at local churches.

For Cardwell and his staff, the unsolved church arson investigations are becoming more and more personally challenging.

"I can't walk in a restaurant without someone saying, 'Hey have you caught that guy or gal or whoever is doing the church fires?'" he said. "Everyone here on the staff is out every day working it. It is, it's mentally challenging," he admitted.

They can not label the incidents "hate crimes" because they are still unsure why the suspect or suspects are targeting churches, specifically, Methodist churches.

"It is what we are considering domestic terrorism. An individual has gone out has set fire to these churches. What is the definition of domestic terrorism? It is inspiring terror in these people."

Methodist church members in the region are especially on edge, he added, but Cardwell has concerns for all places of worship in Guilford and Rockingham Counties.

Methodist Church member Tim Florence was at the meeting Tuesday night, and feels more comfortable going over safety measures with his region's fire marshal.

"We have formed a safety security task force," Tim explained, though he was too worried to share the name of his church. "We have walked the campus looking for avenues to make it safer. And we've taken action because of it."

Florence advises all local churchgoers to not just drive past their church, but also pull into the parking lot and make quick drive around the building.

Officials advise not to attempt to stop anything or anyone that looks suspicious but report it immediately.

"As we ride by we should be observant," added Florence. "If we see something out of the ordinary, throw up a flag! Call 911.Be a great witness."

The safety package, distributed today via email, includes a suspect worksheet for people who witness anything odd.

So far, Crimestoppers has only received one tip in this ongoing investigation; it was a dead-end, said Cardwell.

There is a $10,000 reward for information in this case that leads to a suspect.