OCEAN CITY, Md. – The man responsible for last week's church fire had a history of mental illness, according to Ocean City police. Spokesperson Lindsay O' Neal says officers came in contact with 56-year-old John Raymond Sterner twice in the past few months, where upon he displayed signs of "emotional and mental crisis." In both of those incidents, officers reportedly transported Sterner to Peninsula Regional Medical Center for evaluation per departmental protocol.
In a press conference Tuesday, investigators said they may never find a motive.
"We have no indication that there was any premeditation, in a sense that he was singling any individual out. We found no kind of instance of malice towards the church so far. Of course, that's still an avenue that we're trying to exhaust. There's a very good possibility that we may never know his actual true intent, and what he intended to do as far as the church and other people that day," OCPD Captain Michael Colbert said.
Police say surveillance video captured at a nearby Shell gas station shows Sterner purchasing gasoline in a red container. Approximately 25 minutes later, investigators say he doused his body with gasoline, ignited himself then walked straight into the church's food pantry – coming in contact with Dana Truitt, a church volunteer who is still in the hospital in critical condition.
The Ocean City Fire Department responded to the fire at the rectory building of St. Paul's by the Sea, around 9:25 AM on Tuesday, November 26th at 302 North Baltimore Avenue. Investigators say the fire started on Sterner, of Ocean City. Officials say the gasoline acted as an accelerant, which lead the fire the spread quickly. Sterner was found dead inside of the building when the Fire Department arrived. Ocean City Fire Marshal's Office has classified the cause of the blaze as "incendiary."
The fire also claimed the life the church's Reverend, David Dingwall, who was found on the second floor of the building unconscious, surrounded by heavy smoke and heat. He was transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries. Dozens of community members lined up Tuesday afternoon to attend his funeral at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Ocean City.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled Rev. Dingwall's cause of death as homicide caused by smoke inhalation, while Sterner's cause of death was ruled as suicide by way of thermal burns and smoke inhalation.
Police say Truitt was injured, while trying to get out of the Shepard's Crook facility during the fire. She is reportedly still being treated at John's Hopkins Bayview Medical Center at this time.
Officials say that the worship center and the Red Doors Community Center which are located within St. Paul's by the Sea, experienced minimal damages. The first and second floor office, have significant smoke and overhaul damage throughout the first floor of the rectory building.
"Our community has experienced unimaginable tragedy," said Mayor Rick Meehan. "Our community, as a whole, mourns the loss of Father David. All of our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this very sad time. He will be forever remembered for making Ocean City a better place."
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