Local, federal authorities investigate Bozeman hate crimes

The Bozeman community remains shaken after a string of vandalisms which struck three local churches, causing significant property damage and propagating offensive and profane antireligious sentiments. The first vandalism occurred at the Kirkwood Baptist Church on North 15th Ave. on March 9, followed a month later by a second incident at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church on West Main Street.

After a quiet summer, a third location was hit: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on South 5th Ave., just a block from campus. This third and final incident, on Aug.15, ignited a much more serious investigation into the perpetrator(s).

According to the FBI, the churches were broken into overnight and were heavily damaged. Windows were broken, walls graffitied, religious items desecrated and multiple fires set. “It’s been a traumatic experience,” Father Leo Proxell, pastor at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church explained, “A church is like a home for the parishioners.” The church is still assessing the costs of restoration, but the current estimate is around $20,000. The church has reinforced entrances, added gating and even installed a security system.

Since the first act in March, the Bozeman Police Department (BPD) has worked closely with the FBI in investigating the incidents. MSU police joined the investigative effort after the church on South 5th Ave. was vandalized in Aug. The BPD has three detectives working full-time on the case, in addition to assistance from the local FBI office. After the third incident last month, the BPD and FBI secured a $5,000 reward for any information that leads to the conviction of the individual or group of people responsible for the vandalisms.

While little is known about who vandalized the churches, investigators do believe that the incidents are connected. “We’re looking at this case from a few angles,” Capt. Steve Crawford of the BPD Detective Division explained, “Either a single person committed these crimes or a very small group of people did it.”

Because of the nature of the crimes — especially the profane anti-religious graffiti inside the churches — the vandalisms are being investigated as hate crimes, a descriptor not often used by law enforcement.

While it has been a difficult experience for the churches, Father Leo is confident that everyone will bounce back. “People of faith are resilient to this kind of stuff. We can pick up right away because we are a lot stronger than these problems.”

No arrests have been made and investigators have turned to the public for help. People are urged to submit any information they may have to the BPD, MSU police, or the FBI. According to Crawford, a few tips have been submitted already and a few persons of interest identified, but “there have been no substantive leeds in the case yet.”

The charges for the crimes include burglary, arson and desecration of a place of worship, each felonies. If convicted, the person or persons who committed the vandalisms could face up to 50 years in prison, $150,000 in fines, or both. The individual(s) would also be responsible for paying full restitution for damages to the churches, which is currently estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“Whoever is doing this has some real emotional issues about religion and that needs to be dealt with,” Father Leo said. “This is not just a practical joke, it’s something more serious. Whoever’s doing this needs to get some help.”

Anyone with information about the incidents or those responsible is asked to contact the FBI at (406) 994-0927, the BPD at 406-582-2010, or the MSU Police Department at (406) 994-2121. Tips can also be emailed to the FBI at SaltLakeCity@ic.fbi.gov or submitted anonymously on the BPD website.