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Arson suspect arrested after 2-alarm fire burns church near San Jose State

Fire damages historic Downtown San Jose church, suspect accused of arson
Fire damages historic Downtown San Jose church, suspect accused of arson 02:02

SAN JOSE– San Jose police have arrested an arson suspect in connection with a two-alarm fire that burned a church near San Jose State University Wednesday afternoon, fire officials said.

The blaze was first reported at 2:33 p.m. at St. Paul's United Methodist Church located at 405 South 10th St.

Ann Clarke, a longtime member of St. Paul's who lives nearby, told KPIX 5 that she heard the fire trucks a right after an employee called 911 reporting smoke in the sanctuary.

"It's shocking and horrible and sad. We've been members here for over 40 years," said Clarke, who worships with her husband at the church every Sunday.

Scene of fire at  St. Paul's United Methodist Church on South 10th Street in Downtown San Jose on June 8, 2022. CBS

Firefighters were able to knock down the fire as of 3:30 p.m. at the one-story structure, but the damage had already been done.

"The spirit of the church is more important. The building is just a building. The spirit is still here," said the Rev. Helen Kung, the lead pastor at St. Paul's.

No injuries were reported in the fire, said San Jose fire department public information manager Erica Ray.

San Jose Fire officials later said witnesses on scene alerted arriving police officers to a person suspected of starting the fire.

Suspect in church fire, identified as Zachary Willars. CBS

Police told KPIX 5 the suspect, identified as 41-year-old Zachary Willars, is facing arson charges.

Following the fire, congregants said they are focused on faith and forgiveness, after finding out the suspect is homeless. Members said St. Paul's prides itself on being a progressive church, welcoming everyone from the downtown area, with a strong focus on homeless outreach.

"It's sad. It's just more of the sadness of it. Why do we have unhoused people in the most wealthy nation in the world?" Clarke said.

The lead pastor said the church will continue to hold Sunday services, and a number of other churches in the area have already reached out offering spaces for worship.

Katie Nielsen contributed reporting.

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