Man Charged in Florida Church Fire That Injured Two Firefighters

A Tallahassee man, accused by the Leon County Sheriff's Office of setting a fire that injured two firefighters and destroyed a church building in April, was arrested Wednesday.

David William Bilsky, 26, also was charged with burglary, criminal mischief to a church and preventing extinguishment of a fire that heavily damaged the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Sgt. Steven Harrelson said. He was taken to the Leon County Jail.

The 6,000-square-foot sanctuary of the church was destroyed by the fire - which was discovered in the early-morning hours of April 16. A nearby administration building suffered smoke and water damage.

According to a Sheriff's Office report, investigators discovered extensive damage to the administration building where they think the burglar used a sword to stab holes into the sheetrock; to cut through religious tapestries on the walls and to destroy a large-screen television. In the sanctuary, where investigators think three separate fires were set, the burglar used a sword to break out three stained-glass windows.

Shortly after the fire, the Warrant Division told investigators they were looking for Bilsky to "take him into custody for a mental evaluation," in connection with a separate investigation, Harrelson said. When Bilsky was located at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, he told officers he "had gone walking ... around the time of the fire ... and he heard glass breaking through the woods," according to the report. Then he told officers "600 agents from the Australia embassy were chasing him."

Investigators interviewed Bilsky's mother, who said her son had left the house on the night before the fire and returned home early the next morning wearing no clothes. A search of the family's Tallahassee home turned up a samurai sword collection belonging to Bilsky. In late April, clothes that his mother identified as her son's were found by dive team members in a holding pond near the home. A sword also was found in the pond. This month, the State Fire Marshal's lab determined that the clothes had candle oil on them similar to oil used at the church, Harrelson said.

Court records show that Bilsky had been arrested in the late 1990s in Brevard County on charges of battery, assault, marijuana possession and loitering and prowling. The disposition of these crimes was unclear Wednesday.

Only months before the fire, the church had been involved in a controversy. Rev. Dennis Ackerson resigned in February because of a disagreement with the Episcopal Church's ordination of a gay bishop last year. About 75 percent of the 150-member congregation joined Ackerson in leaving the congregation.

In April, former pastor Ackerson and Sterling Henderson, who serves as priest-in-charge of Holy Spirit, said they did not believe any of their members were involved in the fire.

Judy Welch, a founding member of Holy Spirit, said Wednesday afternoon she was relieved to find out the man arrested is not associated with the church.

"Everybody would like to have closure," Welch said. "We'd like to know he's not going to be a threat to anyone and that he'll get what he needs - whether it's mental health or other rehabilitation."

Henderson said the congregation had "dealt with all their emotions" earlier. "We harbor no bitterness toward him," she said.

Loading