Two teenagers receive community service for the fire at the old Battle Ground Church

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

Two teenagers were convicted earlier this month in the July 5 fire that burned down the former Cherry Grove Church in Battle Ground.

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

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

The teenagers were condemned in the fire which burned down several buildings, including the old 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 at Battle Ground.

The first firefighters to arrive on the scene found the second floor of the church and its bell tower completely engulfed, while the flames threatened a house on the property. The fire eventually spread to the house adjoining the church and to the sheds located in the backyard of the church.

Firefighters faced several complications as they attempted to extinguish the blaze. There was a lack of fire hydrants in the area, “extreme clutter” on the property, and a vented propane tank. A total of 42 personnel, 10 fire engines, a ladder truck, four water supply personnel, four chief officers, two DNR fire engines and a DNR team leader 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. Video showed a vehicle driving towards the property and stopping, as one of the occupants threw an object causing sparks at the residence. The vehicle then fled.

Steve Slocum, the owner of the property, said the judge’s decision to reduce the number of community service hours came as a surprise. On the contrary, he expected Lewis to increase the hours, not cut them.

“I was shocked by this and I am still shocked. I am shocked by all of this,” Slocum said.

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

“I didn’t want to see them thrown in jail and the keys thrown away. I think a short amount of serve would have been appropriate,” Slocum said. “Overall, it just sends a terrible message.”

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

“Where did the kids get the fireworks?” 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 while some enjoyed the display, it also made him a target for theft, and in one case, he alleges, deliberately thrown fireworks.

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

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

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

The contents of the destroyed property were “another nightmare,” Slocum said. He lost antiques, heirlooms, and items from his 20 years of photojournalism.

“I can’t describe how much stuff I had and a lot of the stuff was antique,” Slocum said. “Things that are 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 the support I’ve seen from the local community,” Slocum said.

Slocum hopes the aftermath and resolution of the fire will show residents the kind of crime and justice that is happening in Clark County.

“I think it’s really important for the community to know what’s going on,” Slocum said.

Norma P. Rex