Man suspected of hate crime after fire at Hanford church

The charred interior of the storage room for wine and vestments at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.
The charred interior of the storage room for wine and vestments at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. Special to the Bee

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many wine bottles were damaged in the suspected vandalism. Thirty-six bottles were destroyed.

A Hanford man was arrested Sunday night for allegedly starting a fire inside a storage room at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Hanford and breaking open dozens of bottles of altar wine, authorities said.

The suspect was identified as Oscar Ruiz, 33. He was booked into Kings County Jail on suspicion of committing a hate crime, as well as arson and burglary, authorities said.

At 9:24 p.m. Sunday a Hanford resident reported a “huge man” banging a trash can against the fence of a home at the 10000 block of East Hanford-Armona Road. When officers arrived, Ruiz had gone across the street to the church, where officers discovered wine bottles and other objects thrown outside. Police found his vehicle’s engine running, with the stereo playing loudly.

Ruiz then came out of the building and did not initially obey vocal commands before officers were able to arrest him, said Hanford police officer B.J. Vargas.

Ruiz admitted to causing the damage because he was upset with the Vatican, police said without elaborating.

Rev. Mike Lastiri said he arrived at the church at 11:15 p.m. and discovered the “sanctuary was in total disarray.” Three cases of altar wine, or 36 bottles, were broken. Light fixtures and wiring were torn out of the walls.

Teresa Dominguez, chancellor of the Diocese of Fresno, said the rampage was caught on security camera. Ruiz is seen starting a fire in a storage room holding vestments and the altar wine. Those materials were used to start the blaze.

“I was overwhelmed, sick to my stomach,” Lastiri said.

Bishop Armando Ochoa of the Fresno diocese was to examine the scene before the clean-up could begin, Lastiri said.

“This church has been standing since 1952 and is a significant part of the life of the community, especially to those who built the church,” Lastiri said.

JoAnna Kroeker: 559-441-6247, @jobethkroeker