Mitchell Co. church arson suspect named

Mitchell Co. church arson suspect named
The ceiling of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church is destroyed. (Source: WALB)
The ceiling of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church is destroyed. (Source: WALB)
The inside of the church has the most damage. (Source: WALB)
The inside of the church has the most damage. (Source: WALB)
State Representative Winfred Dukes is a deacon at the church. (Source: WALB)
State Representative Winfred Dukes is a deacon at the church. (Source: WALB)

MITCHELL CO., GA (WALB) - A Norman Park man is now behind bars, charged with arson and burglary, after investigators said he intentionally set fire inside the Mount Zion Baptist Church on Pine Cliff Road, reported at 8:30 Tuesday morning.

27-year-old Kentrez Gardner, 27 appeared before a Mitchell County judge Thursday afternoon.

He's being charged with one count of burglary in the second degree and one county of arson in the first degree.

Judge E.P. Lamb issued Gardner a $25,000 bond for each charge.

It was two days ago investigators said he burglarized and burned the church.

"In the report the items were valued at over $4,700, together," said Mitchell County Sheriff's Office Investigator Lt. Robert Rumble.

The State Fire Marshall expects the damages of the church to be more than $100,000.

Investigators said Gardner made a full confession to burglarizing and setting the church on fire. Still many are asking why.

"He loved the church," explained Rumble. "There were some people that I think hurt his feelings in the church. It was definitely not a hate crime. It was not that he was trying to hurt anyone within the church."

Investigators said Gardner had been a pianist at the church, and former member of the congregation.

It took help from multiple agencies to identify and put Gardner behind bars.

It involved the State Fire Marshall, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Colquitt County Sheriff's office.

Thomas county investigators recovered a digital keyboard, speakers, a stand and other items from a pawn shop.

Dougherty County police eventually handcuffed Gardner.

"It's just a team effort," said Rumble. When you have a good bunch of folks and all these agencies do have good folks. We came together because we are all committed to protecting communities that we serve. And I think that ever is what solved this case."

On Wednesday, the church's congregation was processing what happened and how they will move on.

The inside of the church had the most damage. Those that are a part of the congregation said they are just trying to figure out why anyone would do this intentionally.

"As a matter of fact it was that first seat I used to sit on right there when I first joined this church," said State Representative Winfred Dukes, a deacon at the church.

As Dukes walked into the church for the first time he recalled the memories he has had there.

"I've been a member here for over 50 years," explained Dukes. "It was the first church I joined. I think I joined when I was about six years old."

The Bible is still partly intact, but it's easy to see the damage on the pews, the ceiling and walls of the church.

"It's depressing, very depressing," said Dukes as he looked around for the first time.

Dukes said it was his great great grandfather who actually founded Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in 1866 after being freed from slavery.

The State Fire Marshall's Office, Mitchell County Sheriff's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms are assisting with the investigation.

Investigators believe the fire may have been set in an attempt to cover up a burglary. Several items are missing from the church.

"Twenty-six years of law-enforcement I haven't seen many church incidents," said Mitchell County Investigator Lt. Robert Rumble. "This one does seem to be a little on the worst side with the intentional setting of the fire within the church."

Dukes said since learning about the fire, the congregation has stayed optimistic.

"It's just an unfortunate circumstance, but Christians have faith and we have hope so it will be one of those things that while it is a tragedy will look at it and see it as a blessing in disguise," explained Dukes.

Dukes said right now the congregation is praying for two main things. One that the people who did this, their hearts will be touched and repaired and also that the investigators will find the people who set the fire and bring them justice.

Investigators ask that anyone who may have seen someone near the church to call the arson hotline at 1-800-282-5804. Rewards of up to $10,000 are given for information leading to the arrest and conviction of an arsonist.

The Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church is one of many in Mitchell County.

Churches in the area said they were upset to hear what happened.

Most of the churches are in rural areas of the county as well.

Some told WALB they are going to be taking a look at their church security.

Pastor Clay Cloud at Hopeful Baptist Church said it is unfortunate to hear about any intentional fire. He said he prays the person who is responsible is caught.

"This is one of those that does make you think twice. When something hits this close to home it does make you think twice about what you have got around you here in the area," said Cloud.

Cloud said he'd like to help the church in any way he can.

This Sunday the First Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Newton was generous enough to offer members of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church to worship there.

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