Two teens receive community service for old Battle Ground church fire

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Two teenagers received sentences earlier this month in the July 5 fire that burned down the old Cherry Grove Church in Battle Ground.

In Clark County Juvenile Court on Jan. 5, the teens received 24 hours of community service and 12 months of community supervision on charges of first-degree reckless burning. Initially the teens faced charges of first-degree arson, but they ended up accepting a plea deal. The teens will also need to pay restitution, although the amount has not yet been determined.

Initially the plea deal called for 32 hours of community service, though Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis reduced the amount to 24.

The teens were sentenced in the fire that burned multiple buildings including the former church. Just before 2:25 a.m. on July 5, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue and Clark County Fire District 3 responded to the 24200 block of Northeast 92nd Avenue in Battle Ground.

The first firefighters who arrived on scene found the second story of the church and its steeple fully engulfed, as flames threatened a house on the property. The fire eventually spread to the house next to the church and to sheds located in the backyard of the church.

Firefighters faced several complications as they worked to extinguish the blaze. There was a lack of hydrants in the area, “extreme clutter” on the property and a venting propane tank. In total, 42 personnel, 10 fire engines, one ladder truck, four water tenders, four chief officers, two DNR wildland fire engines and one DNR crew boss responded.

In August, the Clark County Fire Marshal’s office released video footage and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the fire. The video showed a vehicle drive up to the property and stop, as one of the occupants threw a sparking object at the residence. The vehicle then sped away.

Steve Slocum, the owner of the property, said the judge’s decision to decrease the amount of community service hours came as a surprise. If anything, he expected Lewis to increase the hours, not drop them.

“I was shocked at that and I’m still shocked. I’m shocked at the whole thing,” Slocum said.

Slocum said the sentences should have been greater so the teens could “experience the process” of the justice system.

“I didn’t want to see them thrown into jail and the keys tossed away. I think a short amount of serving would’ve been appropriate,” Slocum said. “Overall, this just sends out a terrible message.”

Slocum said three other people in the vehicle did not receive charges. He noted there had been a ban on fireworks in place in the area due to the fire danger at that time.

“Where did the kids get the firework? Who bought it for them?” Slocum asked.

Slocum bought the property in 2014. Prior to the fire, the church was known for the multitude of mannequins that dotted the property. Slocum acknowledged that although some were appreciative of the display, it also made him a target for theft, and in one case, he alleges, a deliberately thrown firework.

“I had my own little world out there,” Slocum said. “I was pretty much self-sufficient.”

Slocum said the months following the fire were a “living hell” as he moved to multiple places and spent a week in the hospital with COVID-19. He recounted the hassle of recovering paperwork, finding a new place to live and dealing with insurance.

The estimated loss of buildings on the property totaled just shy of $1 million, Slocum said. Of that, he said insurance would cover only about $560,000.

The contents of the destroyed property was “another nightmare,” Slocum said. He lost antiques, family heirlooms and items from his 20 years as a photojournalist.

“I can’t describe how much stuff I had and a lot of the stuff was antique,” Slocum said. “Stuff that’s really hard to put a value on and really hard to replace.”

After the fire, Slocum received an outpouring of support, which included a Facebook group that formed to provide relief.

“I’m really surprised at how much support I’ve seen from the local community,” Slocum said.

Slocum hopes the aftermath and resolution to the fire shows residents the type of crime and justice that’s happening in Clark County.

“I think it’s really important that the community knows what’s going on,” Slocum said.

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