After flames engulfed the vacant mosque last week, officials found graffiti, trash and other evidence that people had been going in and out of the building illegally.
Fire investigators are searching for a group of people, possibly teenagers, who were seen running from behind Bellevue’s Islamic Center of Eastside minutes before it went up in flames last week.
Investigators do not believe the blaze at the mosque Wednesday, the second in roughly 14 months, was a hate crime or act of violence against the Muslim community, according to police and FBI officials.
After going inside the burned building, investigators found graffiti, trash and other evidence that people had been squatting inside the vacant mosque since it had closed down for faith-based activities after the first fire in January 2017, officials said at a public forum Saturday.
“There is nothing indicating that this fire was started as a result of hate or bias towards Islam or the Muslim community,” Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said at the meeting, available by video on the Bellevue Police Department’s Facebook page. “I’m not saying that is not the case; we don’t know yet. But there is nothing indicating that that was the motivation.”
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Investigators found the word “school,” preceded by a 4-letter word, painted on a wall inside the two-story, wooden building, as well as mattresses, pizza boxes, cigarette butts, cigar residue and other trash lying around, he said.
Neighbors have seen numerous children jumping fences to go in and out of the the building, especially within the past 30 days, Mylett said. Also, witnesses have seen adults trespassing and staying in the building overnight.
“They could have been starting a fire to cook, they could have been messing around with matches and it got out of hand — either way it’s a crime,” he said of possible reasons for the fire.
The blaze had swallowed a large portion of the building, located in the 14700 block of Main Street, when firefighters first arrived shortly before 4:30 p.m., Bellevue Fire Department Lt. Brian Gomez reported from the scene. They knocked down the big flames and then secured the building for a safe entry. About 30 minutes later, Gomez reported the blaze under control, and fire investigators later went inside.
No injuries were reported, though the smoke and fire furthered damage from the fire last year. Bellevue investigators initially focused their investigation on a man who was convicted of reckless burning for that fire, which occurred Jan. 14, 2017. He had been recently released from prison and had absconded from his community corrections officer, which drew attention to him, but police have said they do not believe he is a suspect in the fire last week.
The January 2017 fire was not considered a hate crime, either.
After last year’s fire, the Islamic Center moved into a leased space in a business park on Northeast 21st Street, a couple miles north of the burned-out mosque.
Mosque members have been working with the city of Bellevue to get permits to tear down the building, which was insured, and begin construction on a new center, which is expected to cost $1.5 to $2 million, according to Omer Lone, a mosque elder and board member.
The fire chief, police officers, FBI investigators and other officials joined the police chief on stage Saturday at Bellevue’s International School to offer condolences and comment on the fire, many addressing fear among mosque patrons and leaders.
“I am quite confident that we’re going to identify the individuals that did this,” Mylett said.
Bellevue City Manager Brad Miyake said once the city receives the final permit application, which could happen as soon as this month, “the city is committed to expediting permitting for the mosque so that the mosque can be rebuilt.”
Officials ask anyone with more details on the fire to call CrimeStoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or to make an online tip by going to www.crimestoppers.com.