By Bill Robinson
Senior News Writer
A burglar likely set the early Monday morning fire that gutted a former First Christian Church parsonage that housed the New Opportunity School for Women.
Arson also is suspected as the cause of a fire in a trash container at a home less than two blocks away.
A surveillance camera on the church building at 204 Chestnut St. in front of the former minister’s home recorded a man dressed in a hooded jacket and camouflage pants entering and leaving the structure before the fire started, according to Trooper Paul Blanton, Kentucky State Police spokesperson.
The man appeared to be about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weigh about 275 pounds, Blanton said.
Firefighters from the city’s main station, next door to the church, had already summoned a state police investigator before they knew of the video, Blanton said.
Church officials informed them of the camera later in the morning.
Portions of the video will be made available to the media to help in apprehending the suspect, the trooper said.
Staff from the New Opportunity School determined that furniture which could not have been moved by water directed on the fire was out of place and a cash box or drawer had been opened, Blanton said.
Ten minutes after the fire was reported at 2:36 a.m. by a Berea College student, another fire at a home on Washington Avenue was reported. This home is about a quarter mile from first fire.
Two fires starting about the same time in close proximity always raises the possibility of arson, said Pat Alford, KSP arson investigator.
The New Opportunity School lost all of the equipment and furnishings inside the building, including the laptop computers used by its students, said director Lori Sliwa.
The school is not a building, however, and its programs will go on, she said. However, Sliwa said she could not promise the term which would have begun in February will take place.
The former parsonage had housed the school’s offices, some classroom space and its clothes closet for the past 15 years, Sliwa said.
The school was founded 25 years ago by Jane Stephenson, whose late husband John Stephenson was then president of Berea College.
The school recently was awarded a $15,000 grant by the American Association of Retired Persons, and a reception in honor of Stephenson and receipt of the grant will take place as scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Boone Tavern.
Stephenson and Dr. William Turner, Berea College Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies, visited John Stephenson’s grave Monday morning as they had planned, Turner said. He brought one of the wreaths they had intended to leave at the Berea Cemetery and placed it on a sign in front of the New Opportunity School’s burnt out building.