Man suspected of setting fire to San Francisco church donation box

Mike Koozmin/The SF ExaminerA wooden donation box in North Beach's St. Francis Church was destroyed in a fire

This thief has certainly been preying.

A possibly deranged man who targets donation boxes inside North Beach churches might be responsible for setting fire to one Friday.

No one was injured in the fire, which destroyed a wooden donation box and a canvas bag that held an unknown amount of cash, police Sgt. Daryl Fong said.

Parishioners of the Vallejo Street church sprung into action upon noticing smoke billowing from the box about 2:30 p.m., said the Rev. Gregory Coiro, rector of St. Francis Church.

They put out the blaze with an extinguisher, Fong said. The arson left smoke damage to the church, Coiro said.
The Fire Department is investigating the incident.

“Luckily there were people in the church setting up the living nativity,” Coiro said, adding that it wasn’t the first time someone tried to set fire to a donation box.

Coiro believes a possibly mentally ill man is responsible for the fire, along with several thefts and attempted arsons at other neighborhood churches.

The rector said he was recently warned about a man caught stealing from the collections at nearby Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Coiro said he later saw a man he believed to be the suspect inside St. Francis. The suspect had visited often in the week prior to the fire.

To prevent future arsons, St. Francis is planning to install metal donation boxes in place of the wooden versions.
Dave Burbank, the sacristan at Sts. Peter and Paul, said his church is regularly hit by several thieves, mostly drug addicts and the mentally ill. One serial thief is known among churches citywide. The suspect will kneel in front of the donation box, acting like he’s praying, while digging into the box with a wire, Burbank said. Houses of worship in The City have been increasingly targeted by thieves, possibly due to the economy, church officials say, adding that they are often open to the public and have light security.

On Thursday, a thief broke into a locked donation box at a Diamond Heights church about 7 a.m. and made off with $100, police said.

Coiro said respect for houses of worship, including mosques and synagogues, has waned in recent years.

“There are a lot of crazy people out on the streets these days,” the rector said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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