Man accused of eating snacks, setting church on fire

Published: Oct. 8, 2012 at 12:04 AM EDT|Updated: Nov. 3, 2012 at 12:27 AM EDT
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St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Sanctuary
St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Sanctuary
St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Sanctuary
St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Sanctuary
St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Food Bank
St. Matthews A.M.E. Church Food Bank

HAZLEHURST, GA (WTOC) - St. Matthews A.M.E. Church has been a pillar of the Hazlehurst community since the ending of slavery.

Church member Gwen Hagans said, "They just had bushes and a few chairs. Well I don't know about chairs, but they had a place to sit. Probably pallets, benches, blankets where they started to worship."

But now the church is a total loss. All that remain are piles of bricks and ashes.

Jeff Davis County Sheriff's Office says the building was set on fire by Larry Kurtz, 46, who deputies also say has a history of violent behavior and burglaries.

"He's a mental health patient also," said Jeff Davis County Sheriff's Investigator Jamie Taylor.

Jesse Hagans, Chairman of St. Mathews' Trustee Board, said, "I was at my wife's aunt's house helping her and she received a phone call that the church was on fire."

Investigators say it all started at one of the church's three building which is used as a food band. Deputies say Kurtz forced his way inside by breaking a window.

"Mr. Kurtz entered the building and took some snacks out of the back room," said Investigator Taylor.

Gwen Hagans said, "He ate cookies, vanilla wafers, chocolate chips, and open cans of pineapple. He just ate."

But deputies say Kurtz soon learned someone was watching.

Investigator Taylor said, "He noticed that there were security cameras and we have reason to believe that the arson was a precursor to the burglary."

Hazlehurst - Jeff Davis firefighters were on the scene Saturday for three hours battling the blaze and facing some dangerous conditions.

"Mainly, just getting into the building with the danger of collapse and the walls collapsing on the firefighters," said Cpt. Dustin Hutto of the Hazlehurst - Jeff Davis Fire Rescue.

No one was physically hurt, but church members are feeling the emotional pain of losing a building that's been around for so long.

"It breaks your heart, but we know that the church is just a building and that we will go on and that the church is in our hearts," said Gwen Hagans.

Church members plan to rebuild. Until then, worship service will be held in the St. Matthews fellowship building.

Kurtz is being held at the Jeff Davis County Detention Center and is facing one count of arson and two counts of burglary.

The state's Fire Marshall's Office is working to determine the exact cause of the fire.

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