FORT COLLINS - A young volunteer firefighter was arrested Wednesday night for allegedly igniting the fire that destroyed a landmark church in the community where he was raised.
Austin Mayo, 19, was arrested on suspicion of first-degree arson in connection with the Nov. 16 blaze that burned the 123-year-old Virginia Dale Community Church, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said.
Mayo, who was booked at the Larimer County Detention Center on a $500,000 bond, also is suspected of starting or trying to start three other fires around Livermore, a ranching community north of Fort Collins, the sheriff said.
"It is a very difficult thing," said Ron Lindroth, assistant fire chief of the Livermore Fire Department.
Mayo had been part of the team of a dozen volunteer firefighters for 1 1/2 years, Lindroth said.
"I can't describe the amount of grief, not only for me but for the department and the industry as a whole," Lindroth said.
Mayo enthusiastically signed up as a Livermore volunteer firefighter when he turned 18, took all the training classes he could and outwardly appeared to be a dedicated public servant, Lindroth said.
Mayo was one of the first firefighters on the scene when quaint Virginia Dale Community Church, off U.S. 287, went up in flames and quickly burned to the ground. The church was built about 1880 near a stage coach stop on the Overland Trail.
The fire scorched the hearts of many residents in rural Livermore, where Mayo went to elementary school and later was home-schooled.
On Wednesday night, Mayo became the suspect in the fire.
"It has been extremely devastating to the department. There's a sense of trust that has been violated," Lindroth said.
Members of the Livermore Fire Department tipped investigators that Mayo might be a suspect, Alderden said.
"Fire personnel became suspicious of Mr. Mayo's activities and demeanor," the sheriff said, refusing to elaborate.
Alderden said physical evidence tied Mayo to the church fire, where accelerant was used to feed flames that devoured the simple white church known for its unlocked doors and for providing respite to weary travelers and worshipers.
The sheriff would not discuss evidence allegedly tying Mayo to the fire, saying the investigation is continuing. An arrest affidavit has been sealed.
Alderden said Mayo has been "cooperative" during interviews. The sheriff would not disclose whether Mayo has confessed, nor would he discuss a possible motive.
Mayo also worked as a wildland firefighter with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, Alderden said. He received his "red card" as a basic firefighter in spring 2002 and worked that summer to help contain the small Round Mountain fire west of Loveland.
Neighbors said Mayo lived with his parents, who have worked to convert a complex of old buildings into a bed-and-breakfast near The Forks. A man who answered the phone at the Mayos' home on Wednesday night hung up.
Kathay Rennels, a Larimer County commissioner and Livermore-area rancher, said she and others in the tight-knit community were shocked to learn that the suspect had grown up there and was a local firefighter.
"This is a double violation of a sacred community," Rennels said. "This is having your heart broken twice, I think."
Lindroth said Mayo had eagerly joined the rural fire department that responds to blazes and emergencies over 310 square miles in northern Colorado.
"He was very enthusiastic," the assistant fire chief said. "He just had a definite interest in being a firefighter."
Mayo also is suspected of igniting a haystack fire Nov. 10 and a grass fire Nov. 11; he is suspected of attempted arson at the Livermore Community Center on Nov. 18, Alderden said.
Mayo also was among the first on the scene at the haystack fire, Lindroth said. Tapes of 911 calls showed that passing motorists, not Mayo, called to report the church blaze.
Congregants are saddened that a community member is suspected in the church burning but are thankful someone has been arrested, said the Rev. Richard Groh, church pastor.
"As far as the church is concerned - and I think this is what God would want us to say - he is forgiven," Groh said of Mayo.
Church members are focused on rebuilding. They have so far raised $12,000 to rebuild a replica of the church in the same spot and are working to raise at least $50,000, Rennels said. A fund has been established at First National Bank in Fort Collins.
"It's going to be as close to the one that burned as we can get it. It wasn't modern, and we don't need modern," said Shirlie Moen, 73, who grew up attending Sunday school at the church and has been a dedicated member as an adult.
"We're going to continue leaving the doors unlocked," Moen said. "People stop and rest and pray and feel the peacefulness."
Groh said only a building was destroyed by fire.
"The church is people, and the church was not destroyed," he said. "Out of ashes will come the monument that was there."
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