Man charged with setting Arizona church fires acted out of sexist and homophobic views, federal prosecutors say

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 26, 2023

The shell of St. Stephen’s in Douglas, Arizona, stands after it was destroyed by a May 22 fire. Photo: Jennifer Reddall

[Episcopal News Service] The man accused of setting the May 22 fires that destroyed St. Stephen’s in Douglas, Arizona, and damaged the neighboring First Presbyterian Church acted out of homophobic and sexist views, according to a document filed by federal prosecutors during a request for his detention until trial.

The document claims Eric Ridenour believes that women shouldn’t hold church leadership positions and that he dislikes members of the LGBTQ+ community. It also says he visited St. Stephen’s in 2021 to inquire about the church’s stance regarding women clergy and said he wouldn’t attend a church with a gay pastor. St. Stephen’s vicar, the Rev. John Caleb Collins, is gay, and the pastor of First Presbyterian, the Rev. Peggy Christiansen, is a woman. The document also noted that Collins and Christiansen provided statements that their parishioners “were terrified of additional danger to their community by the defendant.”

Ridenour, who pleaded not guilty at his July 21 arraignment, is set to stand trial in federal district court in Tucson on Aug. 22 on two felony counts of arson, for which he could face five to 20 years in prison if convicted. He has been held in custody awaiting trial after a judge determined he could be a danger to the community if released on bail. He previously was convicted of a misdemeanor in connection with domestic violence and had been arrested for other alleged acts of violence against his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend

After the arraignment, Collins told a Tucson TV station that the church has been praying for Ridenour every week and that the loss of their building will not slow down its ministry. “Rather than intimidating us, it’s only recommitting us to continue to care about the people we care about, whether it’s immigrants, women or LGBTQ people,” he said. “It has not deterred us at all.”

Ridenour was arrested on May 23 and was charged with setting the fires at both churches, located in the town’s historic district in a single square city block also home to Methodist and Baptist churches. Douglas is a town of about 16,000 people located on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Since the fire, members of St. Stephen’s have worshiped at nearby Grace United Methodist Church, Laurel Way, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, told Episcopal News Service. They didn’t have much to bring with them, since only a few small items survived the fire. Luckily, parish and financial records withstood a flood, caused by melted water pipes, that destroyed the church office and its contents. The parish hall mostly was undamaged.

On June 25, Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddall deconsecrated the building and its grounds, clearing the way for demolition, although the presence of asbestos in the walls and the 122-year-old building’s historic landmark status have delayed it. Reddall and other diocesan officials are scheduled to meet with the Douglas City Council on July 27 to discuss the church’s next steps; moreover, they have been working with Church Insurance and the Douglas Historical Society, Way said.

Collins, who has served St. Stephen’ since 2020, will leave to become rector of the Church of the Transfiguration in Mesa on Sept. 1. He was set to leave this summer, but after the fire he offered to stay on to help with the initial aftermath. Supply clergy already are filling in some weeks and will continue to help after Collins’ departure, and St. Stephen’s then will search for an interim.

After the fire, Way said several churches reached out for help on how to keep their building safe. The diocese has been working with the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and their program for houses of worship to give churches information about security for their buildings and congregations. “We tell them to just be conscious,” she said. “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing, don’t stop fighting the fight, but just be aware.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.