Around 9am this morning at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in downtown Savannah, a man with a gun and lighter fluid walked into the church threatening two employees. He scared both off and locked himself inside the main area.
"The suspect at that point began to set a fire," said Savannah police spokesman Bucky Burnsed. "At least one, maybe two fires inside the cathedral near the alter area, from what I understand, under a chair or a bench." The bishop's chair and the pulpit were destroyed.
Police cleared the area and nearby St. Vincent's Academy was also evacuated.
Shortly thereafter, officers with the Savannah police and the Emergency Response Team forced their way into the church. "[The suspect] was armed," said Burnsed, "however, at the time that he was taken into custody, he was not in possession of his weapon."
Savannah firefighters immediately entered the scene and extinguished the fire.
The suspect, identified as 31-year-old Stuart Smith of Marietta, was arrested and the crowd that had gathered outside could breathe a sigh of relief. Many of those gathered were affiliated with the church in some way. "It hurts you," said church member Michael Beytheh. "I was here last night for a beautiful ceremony for Father Albert, and I turned to my wife and said, 'What a beautiful place.' To hear this, it just hurts you."
Police are holding Smith on numerous charges, including arson. The church is considered a crime scene, so nobody is allowed in the main area, though congregation members can attend mass in the lower level of the cathedral.
Students at St. Vincent's are back in session.