Angela Hedrick, a public information officer with the Salem Police Department, confirmed with CNA that the fire was caused by arson and that Sweeten is currently being lodged in Marion County Jail.
The police press release said that “due to suspicious circumstances of the fire, arson detectives from the Salem Police Felony Crimes Unit responded to the scene for the investigation, resulting in the arrest of Billy James Sweeten.”
Sweeten is currently facing first-degree arson charges. First-degree arson is a Class A felony in Oregon.
Hedrick told CNA that due to county policy, she could not comment further on Sweeten’s motives for starting the fire. She said the case is now in the hands of the local district attorney.
Brendan Murphy, deputy district attorney for Marion County, declined to comment on the case, stating Oregon law prohibited him from doing so.
According to the Salem Reporter, Sweeten “has a lengthy criminal history with convictions dating back to 1994.”
The Salem Reporter also said that as recently as Aug. 24 he was charged with unlawful entry into a motor vehicle and second-degree criminal mischief. He failed to appear for his arraignment scheduled on Aug. 28.
Sweeten has previously been charged with arson after setting fire to a woman’s house in 2021, though the charges were dismissed as part of a plea deal, according to the Salem Reporter.
Over 300 celebrate Mass outside burned church
Douglas Markwell, communications director for the Archdiocese of Portland, told CNA that more than 300 faithful from the parish community gathered for a Mass in the parking lot the day of the fire. The mass was celebrated by Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample.
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“In his homily,” Markwell said, “the archbishop expressed his joy at seeing the outpouring of support from the community. He reminded the crowd huddling under umbrellas and tents that the fire may have burned the building, but the Church is her people, and we are intact and thriving.”
Markwell shared a link for a St. Joseph fire relief fund established by the Archdiocese of Portland.