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Camrose woman suspected of attempted arson of Barrhead church

BARCC and tips from public instrumental in learning suspect’s identity

BARRHEAD - Barrhead RCMP Sgt. Bob Dodds credited tips from the public in quickly identifying the culprit in the attempted arson of the St. Anne Parish Church in Barrhead May 1.

Shortly after 8 a.m., a 57-year-old Camrose woman was seen dousing the 52nd Avenue side of the church with gasoline (or another fuel from a jerry can) and attempted to light the building on fire. The woman was then seen getting into a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with Alberta plates.

The RCMP found the woman the next day and appeared in front of a justice of the peace on May 3 and was released on conditions. Her next court appearance is set for May 23.

"Damage was minimal, but a witness had some excellent photographs of this person, and within 15 minutes of posting one of the photos via BARCC (Barrhead Area Regional Crime Coalition), we had a response identifying the woman," said Dodds while speaking to County of Barrhead councillors during their May 2 meeting.

BARCC is a partnership between Woodlands County, the Town of Barrhead and the County of Barrhead, along with the Barrhead RCMP and Rural Crime Watch and formed in the spring of 2018, in part due to discussions Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen had with all parties to come up with initiatives to combat rural crime.

However, Dodds said the most helpful feature of BARCC in terms of public safety and the apprehension of suspects is the ability for the police, along with the municipalities, to send alert messages via e-mail, text and telephone.

"It worked to a tee," he said.

Dodds added that the woman is most likely responsible for another fire of a storage shed about 15 minutes later in the alley behind Sal's Famous on 49th Street, based on the time between incidents and the proximity.

Reeve Doug Drozd asked Dodds if the fire of the shed could have been a distraction and if the attempted arson of the church was the target of something larger.

"In the last couple of years, there has been something like 74 cases of churches purposely set on fire. What does the public need to know of any work or successes on that file?" he asked, referring specifically to the June 2021 fire in Morinville that consumed the 113-year-old Roman Catholic church on the town's main thoroughfare. The fire is still under investigation, although the authorities deemed it suspicious from the start.

Dodds said although they are not ruling anything out, and as of the meeting, police were still looking for the woman and is confident the fires were not political.

"I anticipate this is going to be a mental-health issue, rather than a hate crime or some sort of political statement," he said. "When the witness asked her why she was doing this, her response was something like 'it was for the Germans.' We have also heard from the family who said there is a mental illness component, but we'll see where (the investigation) goes."

Barrhead Regional Fire Services (BRFS) chief Gary Hove added the result of the two fires could have been much worse if it was not for the quick actions of the public.

"(The witness) came over and pulled out the insulation (from around a window) that was burning and basically extinguished the fire," Hove said.

When BRFS firefighters arrived, he said, they ensured there was no fire burning in the wall and that the fuel was sufficiently diluted, so it was no longer a threat.

As for the second fire, Hove noted that firefighters were able to find it quickly due to an off-duty RCMP police officer who just happened to be passing the area at the right time.

Barry Kerton,

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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