The vandalism that ruined much of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth was described by its pastor as “disturbingly violent.”
The century-old church near TCU was vandalized and set on fire about 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2017. The fire was put out quickly but the church was badly damaged, forcing officials to cancel Sunday morning services that week.
The man responsible, Thomas Britton, 56, was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday. The jury took five minutes to reach a decision, according to a news release from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.
“This was not just criminal mischief. This was historic criminal mischief,” said prosecutor Vincent Giardino. “The police officers on the scene that morning, and even his own defense attorney, said they’d never seen anything like it. His goal was not just to damage this church, but to obliterate it. And he has no remorse for it.”
The damage was discovered later that morning when a parishioner arrived to check on the heating unit, which was damaged during Britton’s attack. Britton, of Fort Worth, was identified and turned into police after surveillance video from inside the church was released to the public. His DNA was also located in multiple locations around the building.
Church pastor the Rev. Frederick “Fritz” Ritsch III said Thursday that the church has recovered and bounced back well, due in large part to the incredible groundswell of support from the community. Ritsch said he believed that if there had been any mitigating circumstances to consider that might have lessened Britton’s sentence, the jury would have found them.
In addition to his being homeless, Britton seemed to display other issues, Ritsch said. Britton had never visited the church prior to the arson. And even homeless people who participated in the church’s homeless mission — Room at the Inn — were confused as to why Britton singled out St. Stephen’s for his attack, Ritsch said.
The real question is why Britton showed such hatred toward the church, Ritsch said.
“He had written something to make it seem like the damage was done by Muslims, but he misspelled Muhammad,” Ritsch said. “It was disturbing that he was trying to make it seem like it was a terrorist act. It was all very disturbing. “
Britton alternated between claiming not to have been at the church that night, to claiming he had been there on a secret national security mission to meet a potential terrorist, the release said. He left graffiti at the scene hoping to convince the police that a group such as ISIS had been involved in the destruction, according to the release.
“It sounded possibly that he was a little dangerous,” Ritsch said. “He would not even admit he committed the crime. So how do we know he would not do something like this again. I thought it best that he is not on the streets.”
This story contains information from Star-Telegram archives.