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Investigators Seek Clues in Debris at Burned Church

Investigators in Smithfield are trying to determine if a church fire and break-in are connected.

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Investigators sifted through ashes and turned over charred debris at a Smithfield church Monday as they tried to determine what sparked a fire that police found when they went to investigate a break-in Sunday morning at a nearby business.

A 17-year-old has been charged with the break-in at Whitley Memorial United Methodist Church, but police do not know if it is connected with the fire.

Smithfield police charged Alvin Parrish, 17, with breaking into a convenience store and stealing three cases of beer, then breaking into the church.

Worshipers arrived Sunday morning to find firefighters and smoke. Instead of prayers and hymns, there were tears and hugs outside the structure.

Officials believe the church's main sanctuary is damaged beyond repair. Church members said they hope they can hold service in a smaller sanctuary on the property.

Monday, member Jesse Hatcher was among those who came to see what could be salvaged.

"It's a terrible mess. That's the best way to describe it. Everything is charcoaled. It's black inside," Hatcher said.

He has a lot of memories connected with the church.

"I was here when the sanctuary was built 40 years ago, 41 years ago," Hatcher recalled.

When police officers showed up to investigate the store break-in, they saw smoke at the church. Within minutes, fire crews arrived at the church and saw someone running from the scene, police said.

Authorities later took Parrish into custody. Police said three other people are wanted for questioning in relation to the church break-in and subsequent fire.

Hatcher said he thinks the fire must have been set, but why that would happen baffles him.

"I can't comprehend how a person could do something of that nature," Hatcher said.



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