Investigators seek public's help identifying arsonist after fire at Fort Pierce mosque

Authorities ask public's help identifying arsonist after fire at Fort Pierce mosque

Investigators on Tuesday finished digging through debris and collecting evidence from the fire set at the Fort Pierce mosque where Orlando massacre shooter Omar Mateen worshipped, authorities said.

The evidence collected from the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce has been driven up to the State Fire Marshal's laboratory in Tallahassee for analysis, said St. Lucie County Sheriff's Maj. David Thompson.

"What we hope that analysis shows is what type of accelerant was used in the burning of the Islamic Center," Thompson said Tuesday afternoon. "If we could determine what was used then ... that would give us an avenue to explore further evidence, like maybe through purchases or things like that."

The mosque was ablaze just after midnight Monday after a man was seen on surveillance video with a bottle of liquid and what appeared to be a handful of paper approach the building, investigators said.

So far, investigators have determined the fire started from outside.

"What the analysis has shown us thus far is that the fire was started exactly where we had thought it was: on the steps leading to east door and on the door itself," Thompson said during a news briefing Tuesday. "There was nothing inside and no burn patterns inside."

Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, killed 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in June and was known to worship at the mosque. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police.

The sheriff's office asked the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to join in the investigation.

"Due to the date of the incident and the possible implications, we have asked federal authorities to help us and assist and, quite honestly, when we identify this individual and place him in custody then there may be additional charges filed at the federal level," Thompson said.

The mosque was set on fire on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the four-day Islamic festival of sacrifice. Thompson also noted the attack also happened close to the anniversary of 9/11.

He said the damage to the mosque was "substantial."

Members of the Islamic Center have started raising funds to repair the structure. A little more than $12,000 has been donated, according to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce Facebook page.

Thompson announced Tuesday that the Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention is offering a $5,000 reward for any tips that lead to the arrest of the arsonist.

Additionally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, along with its national chapter, will offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest & conviction of the mosque's arsonist, according to Wilfredo Ruiz, a spokesman for the Florida Chapter.

Thompson said the sheriff's office hasn't received many phone tips after the agency released video and photographs of the suspected arsonist.

"We have only received eight phone tips relating to this incident. That is very disheartening," Thompson said. "Regardless of your personal beliefs, this is a place of worship. An arsonist lighting this mosque on fire is not good for anyone, it is not good for the community, it is not good for America."

In the video, a man is seen riding a motorcycle described as "a Harley-Davidson-style motorcycle, with a low seat and higher handlebars," Thompson said Monday.

Thompson said investigators already reached out to any motorcycle shops in the area and visited any local spots frequented by bikers with pictures of the suspect to see if anyone recognized him.

The man wore jeans with distinctive embroidery on the rear pants pockets, a button-front shirt and a boonie-style fishing cap, Thompson said.

"When people look at this, I wanted to look at the clothing, I want them to look at the shape of the motorcycle, I want them to look at the mannerisms of the individual because when it's somebody you know, even if they are walking away from you, you know who that person is," Thompson said. "Somebody knows who did this. Please call."

Authorities ask anyone with information to call the sheriff's office at 772-462-3230 or Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-800-273-8477.

rpiccardo@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4544 or Twitter @rebecapiccardo

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