Hicksville fires set Sunday night following large LGBT community worship, social gathering
An arson attack on the offices of a Long Island gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender religious congregation, coming the same evening that the group held a widely publicized community worship and social gathering, is being investigated by Nassau County officials as a possible bias crime.
When employees of the Long Island Community Fellowship (LICF) arrived for work Monday morning at their offices in a converted house near the train station in Hicksville, they found the doors ajar and evidence of two fires that had been set, one on the first floor and the other one upstairs.
According to Pastor G. Shane Hibbs, literature from the church had been piled outside of his second floor office and set on fire. Downstairs, he said, mail and trash were combined to set a second fire.
Both fires extinguished themselves and did not attract any notice from neighbors of the building. Hibbs said that the last known person in the offices during the weekend left at about 7 p.m. Sunday evening to go to the worship LICF held at the St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in nearby Syosset. St. Bede’s has been home to the LICF congregation for the past year.
According to Hibbs, damage to the LICF structure will run more than $10,000, with significant damage to both carpets and wood floors under them. The fire upstairs was adjacent to an air conditioning intake vent, so smoke damage, not part of the $10,000 estimate, occurred throughout the building, including offices of other organizations. The entire building, including the other businesses and LICF’s food pantry that supplies meals for local residents living with life-challenging diseases, will likely be closed until the end of the week for repairs.
Although the damage to LICF’s building was not significant, Nassau County officials are taking the case seriously.
“It was a suspicious fire. You can say that,” said Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone, a spokesperson for the Nassau County Police Department in Mineola. We are treating this as an arson investigation and the bias unit has been contacted.”
Repalone said that evidence had been collected at the scene of the fire and had been sent to a crime lab for analysis, but he declined to specify the nature of that evidence. He said one of the questions police were trying to answer was whether chemical accelerants had been used.
Repalone also said that although crime scene photos had been taken, none would be released to the public at this time.
Fire Investigator Eugene Pietzak from the Nassau County Fire Marshal’s office confirmed that two separate fires had taken place at the LICF offices.
“All fires are dangerous,” he said. “The amount of damage was minimal, but the setting of it is a serious concern. We are working together with the arson and bomb squad at the Nassau County Police.”
Sgt. Gary Shapiro, who works in the bias unit at the Nassau County Police, said he is keeping in touch with investigators, “monitoring the situation,” but said no determination had been made about whether the arson will formally be classified as a bias crime.
Hibbs said that the congregation was started three years ago and has always had its offices in the same location in Hicksville. The congregation conducts its business there, he said, without any particular notice from neighbors, who are a mix of businesses and residences. During the first year or so, Hibbs said, the offices occasionally received hate phone calls, which have since stopped. About a year ago, staffers noticed people watching the building from a parked car on occasion, and shortly afterward, the building was broken into and the telephone system vandalized. At that time, according to Hibbs, the building installed sturdier locks and secured the telephone room in the basement.
The LICF staffer who was in the building Sunday night recalled locking all the doors, but on Monday morning, Hibbs said, there was no sign of forced entry. Police would not comment on the way the arsonists may have entered the church offices.
Hibbs said his congregation has enjoyed a strong relationship with St. Bede’s in the year it has worshipped in that church, and could not recall that congregation’s pastor, Father Bill Parker, every mentioning any complaints he received for letting the LGBT group gather there.
Hibbs acknowledged that the Sunday gathering at St. Bede’s, called a Unity in the Community celebration, had gotten more publicity than any previous event the group has held. About 60 people attended, including Long Island Pride Chorus representatives from the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Gay and Lesbian Foundation of Long Island (GALFOLI), the Long Island Pride Parade Committee, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Pride for Youth.
One of those in attendance, Jimmy Dahroug, is the Democratic candidate for the 3rd District state Senate seat currently held by Republican Caesar Trunzo. Dahroug has offered Hubbs any assistance he can provide.
“It is deeply disturbing is what it is. I think we have a tolerant community out here,” Dahroug said. “One would hope that we live that we live in a more open society. It was an amazing event Sunday night, but perhaps they put a target on their back for the small group of people who does something who would do something like this.”
Others in the Long Island Community have also offered their support.
Camille Gnolfo, owner of Forever Green, a gay bar in Lyndhurst, has pledged $2,000 to the help the church in its repair efforts.
The Nassau County fire marshal’s office asks anyone with information about this crime to call its confidential arson hotline at 516 742 3219.