ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, N.C. -- 18-year-old Harley Kendall Fulp pled guilty to burning a church in a Rockingham County courtroom Monday.
He admitted to setting the fire at Gideon Grove United Methodist Church in Stokesdale last December by breaking a window and pouring gasoline through the window. Fulp then lit a match and dropped it inside.
According to Assistance District Attorney Melanie Bridge, Fulp was upset about money he felt family members owed him. He had family who attended Gideon Grove and decided to set it on fire.
An unexpected moment in the courtroom came when the church's pastor, Reverend Wanda Lancaster, spoke about forgiving Harley Fulp.
"I have forgiven Harley for what he has done," she explained to FOX8. "And asked that the judge not send him to prison...because I don't feel like prison is the answer for an 18-year-old."
Judge Todd Burke sentenced Fulp to 20-36 months, suspended for 36 months of supervised probation. He will not serve time behind bars. According to the DA's office, as part of his probationary sentence Fulp was ordered to do 100 hours of community service helping to rebuild the church. He was also instructed to read an apology letter in front of the congregation.
Reverend Lancaster added, "We had some in the congregation who were very sure of his innocence but we had others who were not as sure of his innocence. So it was a time of anxiety and the tensions were running high."
She believes forgiveness from all of them will come with time.
They are hosting a groundbreaking ceremony at 3 p.m. on Sunday to celebrate moving forward and rebuilding a new church.
"Hopefully what was here and what was left as a pile of ashes will not be so strong in our memories," explained the pastor.
Construction could cost nearly a million dollars, and insurance will not cover the entire cost. Rev. Lancaster said they will continue fundraising and thank everyone who has contributed already.
They hope to open the new church in fall or early winter of 2014.
"This was a senseless crime," said Melanie Bridge, thanking the teamwork between the Fire Marshal's Office, the Sheriff's Department, and the District Attorney's Office.
Harley Fulp's attorney Vernon Cardwell said the teenager did not yet wish to speak to FOX8 about the sentencing.
The investigations of the arsons at two other nearby churches are ongoing.
Anyone with information about the fires set at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church on Dec. 24, 2012, and Bethany United Methodist Church on Feb. 13, 2013, is asked to call the Rockingham County Fire Marshal’s Office at 336-634-3014, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office at 336-634-3232 or Rockingham County Crimestoppers at 336-349-9683.