Man in custody after church in Verona, New Jersey set on fire

Toni Yates Image
Friday, April 5, 2024
Altar and pew damaged in fire set aside in New Jersey church
Toni Yates has more from Verona where a man is in custody for setting a fire inside a church.

VERONA, New Jersey (WABC) -- Arson investigators responded to the scene of a church that caught fire in Verona, New Jersey.

The fire, which damaged a pew and the altar, started shortly before 4 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church on Lakeside Avenue.

Investigators have one person in custody, and it's apparently someone they're familiar with.

They say the man, 42-year-old Elliot Bennett, walked into the Verona Police Department and confessed to the crime, as he has done at least once before.

Bennett has been arrested several times over the past few years for vandalism at the church.

He allegedly damaged statues outside last September.

"About six months ago he took a hammer to a statue out here and then went to the police station down the block and turned himself in," parishioner Thomas Frawley said.

Bennett is well known in the area, where locals say, he lives with his parents, and that his alleged crimes are not limited to churches, saying they have confronted him several times.

"A few years ago, I have a St. Francis statue in front of my house, and that was destroyed," said former Verona Mayor Frank Sapienza. "My neighbor across the street, their nativity set was destroyed."

As for the incident on Thursday, the fire department was less than a mile away and responded quickly to the scene.

The Archdiocese of Newark released a statement thanking first responders for their efforts:

"Unfortunately, the church is heavily damaged, and the parish community is heartbroken. However, we have faith that we will get through this difficult time and request the community to keep those affected in their prayers."

The interfaith community is offering to help the parish of Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church with any help they may need.

"I reached out to the church administrators just now and I'm going to speak to Father Peter later this morning when he gets back and say that our sanctuary is theirs, so if they need to hold services there they are welcome to, funerals, whatever they need, we stand to help them with this situation," said Pastor Anthony Giordano with Calvary Lutheran Church.

Over the last 12 years, numerous statues have been defaced broken and knocked over, making Thursday's crime the latest in a string of incidents at the church.

"It's particularly devastating to someone like me who treasures all houses of worship," said Pastor Anthony Giordano of Calvary Lutheran Church.

Bennett is facing a slew of charges, including bias intimidation, burglary, aggravated arson, unlawful possession of a weapon, and more.

The Essex County Prosecutor's Office is working on the case.

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