Clarification: an earlier headline on this story said the FBI had launched a hate crime investigation. That was premature. A hate crime is only one of several possibilities they are looking at.
In what investigators say could be a hate crime, at least one arsonist set a series of fires early Wednesday morning inside a building housing an anti-abortion ministry across the street from a Northeast Albuquerque Planned Parenthood.
The suspect or suspects smashed a window to gain entry to the modest white brick building, then set at least four fires in its chapel and gathering area, according to a leader of the ministry Project Defending Life.
The FBI was called in several hours later and is now assisting the Albuquerque Fire Department to determine whether any “federal violations” were committed, said Frank Fisher, an FBI spokesman.
“Hate crime could be on the table, depending on what we find,” he said.
No suspects have been identified, but Fisher released a video and three surveillance photos of a white car that was in the area at the time the fires were started.
“There is a gap of several minutes between the time the vehicle stops and the driver gets back into the vehicle,” Fisher said.
He said the driver is not considered a suspect at this time, but investigators would like to talk to him or her.
Dominique Davis, the director of client services at Project Defending Life, said the building’s alarms started going off around midnight. The executive director of the nonprofit arrived as firefighters were working to extinguish the flames.
Four fires had been set throughout the building, at San Mateo and Marquette NE.
In the Holy Innocents chapel, a fire had been set on the altar beneath a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and another was started on one of the half-dozen pews. In the building’s meeting area, a blaze had consumed much of a table that had held pamphlets and papers, and a rack of pocket-sized pamphlets was set on fire.
“It was at that point that they realized there was some intention behind the fires,” Davis said.
Throughout the day Wednesday, volunteers and employees worked to clean and secure the building. They swept up broken glass and nailed plywood over broken windows and doors.
The inside of the building, dark and waterlogged, still smelled of burning rubber and smoke.
Davis said the ministry focuses on providing pregnancy-related services to women who don’t want to have an abortion and are looking for other options. The Catholic-based organization started in 2006. It holds Mass in the chapel and offers gynecological services as well as parenting and life-skills classes.
Davis said she’s not sure why the ministry became a target.
“They might have thought because we’re pro-life we shame women and want to take away rights,” she said.
Board member Curt Kuper said someone threw a rock through the window a couple years ago, but generally the ministry is a quiet and peaceful place.
Davis said the building will be shuttered for at least several months, but she could not estimate how much repairing the damage will cost. She said ministry staff is working to figure out how to continue to care for the 15 women who are currently using its services.
“That’s what makes me the most sad about it,” she said. “No matter where you stand on the issue (of abortion) we’re just trying to help families, and we’ve helped lots of families with housing, getting jobs and getting established.”
Respect New Mexico Women – a coalition of progressive groups, including Planned Parenthood – released a statement Wednesday afternoon condemning the arson.
“We are compelled to speak out against violence of any kind, even when directed at those who may share different values and beliefs,” the statement reads. “Now more than ever our communities must provide strength and comfort. Respect New Mexico Women offers Project Defending Life positive thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”
Less than an hour after the fires at the ministry, firefighters were called to a blaze that destroyed a nearly completed luxury condo project on Central Avenue. A spokeswoman with the Albuquerque Fire Department said they don’t believe the two fires are related.
Journal staff writer Nicole Perez contributed to this report.