Groups with offices at Mpls church claim 'botched' fire investigation

Razing the church
Heavy equipment is used to tear down a wall of the Walker Community United Methodist Church in the city's Powderhorn Park neighborhood on Monday, May 28, 2012. The building was gutted by a fire the previously evening. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
MPR Photo/Hart Van Denburg

The three-alarm fire that destroyed the Walker Community United Methodist Church in Minneapolis earlier this week displaced the church's congregation, and it also disrupted the work of several nonprofit groups that had office space in the church.

Some members of those groups accuse the city of demolishing the charred building too quickly after the fire, which has prevented them from recovering some of their possessions and determining the cause.

Michelle Gross is the president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, which used to have an office in the attic of the church.

"Some of us learned of the fire right away and were down here during the night while the fire was burning," said Gross. "It was excruciating to watch the fire consume our office and 11 and a half years of our work."

Gross said her group lost everything, including three computer hard drives, reams of paper files and nine video cameras. The computer hard drives contained video taken by cameras outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, she said, adding that her group battled the city of St. Paul for eight months to get the footage.

The fire also destroyed photos and other documents that were to be used as evidence in litigation against police officers, Gross said.

Remains of the Walker church
A sign, a pile of bricks and rubble is all that remains of the Walker Community United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis the morning after the structure was destroyed by a three-alarm fire.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Other organizations based in the church still hope to salvage some of their belongings. The Welfare Rights Committee had an office in the church basement. The group's cofounder Deb Konechne said 20 years of the group's history is still down there under the rubble.

"We were never notified of a demolition. We were never given the opportunity to get salvageable items out," said Konechne. "We don't even know if we lost all our items in this fire because we were never given the chance to secure those items."

Konechne, Gross and others want to know why the remnants of the church were knocked down so soon after the fire was extinguished. Investigators haven't determined the cause of the fire, and Konechne worries the demolition erased any hopes of finding that out.

"Because they botched that investigation -- they recklessly and prematurely demolished the evidence -- we may never have the right to know what the cause of the fire was," she said.

Konechne didn't speculate on what might have been the cause, but she said in March, police investigated a possible attempted arson at the church.

Someone filled the church with gas by turning on the burners of the stove in the basement kitchen, but didn't ignite them, Konechne said. Minneapolis police didn't respond to a request for comment on Konechne's claim in time for this story.

Walker pastor Walter Lockhart confirmed the investigation into the gas incident. He said the probe didn't turn up anything conclusive. But Lockhart said the church did change the locks on the doors.

The church also housed other politically active groups, including Occupy Minneapolis and the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, as well as a host of arts organizations. Michelle Gross said that's even more reason to find out what caused the fire.

"Knowing the controversial nature of the groups that rented in the space, you can't just say, 'Oh well, hopefully it was lightning, but we don't really know.' You need to check it out," Gross said.

City officials say the remains of the structure were demolished because they posed a safety hazard, adding that fire investigators were able to examine the rubble before the demolition.

In the meantime, some of the non-profit groups displaced by the fire plan to carry on their missions without a permanent address. Mikael Pensec of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee said members of his group will meet where ever they can.

"We're going to be having meetings in libraries right now," Pensec said. "But eventually we need our own office again. For the time being we're going to continue doing the work we've been doing. Like I said, we can do that wherever. There's nothing that can stop us."

Communities United Against Police Brutality will also hold its upcoming meetings in public libraries, according to Michelle Gross. She also says an attorney representing her group has asked the city to excavate part of the rubble to allow people to retrieve what they can.

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