Report: Homeowner says she saw people with gas can near abandoned Kingsport church before fire

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Kingsport homeowner told police she saw two people with a gas can approach an abandoned church building Tuesday night before a fire occurred.

According to a report from the Kingsport Police Department, officers responded to the 2300 block of Ashwood Avenue at 10:03 p.m. due to a fire at the abandoned Highland Freewill Baptist Church.

Flames were still visible in the church when officers arrived, but the Kingsport Fire Department quickly extinguished the fire.

KFD Deputy Chief Jim Carter told News Channel 11 that Tuesday marked the second fire at the building since Sunday. Carter also said there was no power connected to the building, ruling out the possibility of an electrical fire.

News Channel 11’s team at the scene saw graffiti inside the abandoned church, but it was unclear if that was related to the fire.

The police report states officers spoke with a nearby homeowner who said that around 9:42 p.m., she saw two people “carrying a small gas can.” The pair were reportedly walking north on Sycamore Street toward Ashwood Avenue.

According to the homeowner, one person sat on the curb nearby and smoked a cigarette while the other walked toward the church on Ashwood Avenue before returning “a few moments later.” The two then walked west on Ashwood Avenue.

The homeowner says she saw a “bright light coming from the church” and walked over to find the building on fire.

The report states officers “spoke to Kingsport Fire Inspector Roger Hensley who stated that the fire is suspected as an arson.” Hensley then spoke with the homeowner and other neighbors.

According to KPD samples from the fire scene have been collected and will be sent to a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab.

Local residents told News Channel 11 the Highland Freewill Baptist Church has been vacant for about 15 years, and has since lured vagrants and vandals to their neighborhood.

“This is getting kind of dicey out here,” William Sheppard, a homeowner nearby said. “I was worried I’m the next target for house burning.”

One vacant home surrounding the church was demolished Wednesday. A second soon to come down, according to the City of Kingsport.

Fire crews told News Channel 11 that the worst of the damage to the church occurred Sunday night and when it was set ablaze again Tuesday night, neighbors were glad to hear that the property owner was planning to have the church demolished as well.

“As for all of our safety because there’s handicapped people lives through here, you know, if something happened, you know, people (would) be scared and won’t know what to do,” Nancy Reisler, a nearby homeowner said.

Residents said vandals have been targeting the church for years.

“Just all the graffiti and everything, you know, and busted glass and now the fires inside the church,” Sheppard said. “They got ‘eff Jesus’ and swastikas on the walls and everything in that church and it’s a shame because that was a nice church. I’ve been in that church it was really nice inside.”

But residents said they were also glad to be rid of the vacant buildings on their block.

“We’ve had people around here, windows busted out, houses being egged, you know just trouble – on drugs, acting crazy, you know, so yeah I’m glad to see them go, every one of them,” Riesler said.

If you know anything about the suspects still at large, contact the Kingsport police.

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for news updates.

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