Dean Pritchard of the Winnipeg Sun has issued the following report:
A fire that destroyed a 105-year-old church in Minnedosa last winter was not an isolated act of arson, but part of an international movement with links to a Norwegian "death metal" musician, say justice officials.
The disturbing revelation was made at a recent court hearing for one of three people accused of torching the Minnedosa United Church last February.
Deanna Lynn Mathews, 19, pleaded guilty in Brandon court April 13 to one count of arson. She will be sentenced May 25.
Court heard the Minnedosa church was set ablaze on the birthday of Varg Vikernes, a 30-year-old death metal musician now serving time in prison in Norway for murdering a bandmate and burning several churches.
"Since Mr. Vikernes burned churches in Europe … there have been copycat church burnings in California, in Texas, in Italy, in Australia and many of the people who have been sentenced have purported to be fans of his music," said Crown attorney Jim Ross.
The night of the fire, Mathews and her boyfriend, Kelsey Ray Taylor, drove from Brandon to Minnedosa to visit friend and co-accused Mark Wishart, Ross told court.
After drinking a while in a cemetery, Wishart went to his grandmother's house, where he was living, and picked up a can of gasoline.
From there, Mathews accompanied Taylor and Wishart to the Minnedosa United Church, "knowing that the purpose of attending was to burn it down," Ross said.
After a couple of efforts, they were successful.
Police arrested Taylor and Mathews a short time later driving out of Minnedosa. In the car, police found a homemade CD entitled "Introduction to Blasphemy", with what police later said appeared to be Taylor's handwriting. The CD included several songs by Vikernes and his bands.
"We're not insisting for sentencing that there was a pre-determined plan to burn the church down," Ross said. "We do allege that Ms. Mathews has been part of a subculture that, among other things, is interested in Norwegian death metal, I suppose what you might largely call the Goth movement."
Vikernes, described as a neo-Nazi, is in prison in Norway serving a lengthy sentence for the 1993 murder of bandmate Oystein Aarseth of the black metal band MAYHEM, as well as the arson of several churches and the subsequent death of a firefighter.
Mathews said she knew nothing about Vikernes and had no connection to the death metal or goth sub-cultures.
"I don't believe in it at all. It has nothing to do with that," she said. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it has nothing to do with anything."
Both Taylor, 21, and Wishart, 20, are scheduled to appear in Brandon court May 25. Wishart has pleaded guilty to arson. Taylor has not yet entered a plea.
Taylor has also been charged with arson in an April 25, 2004, fire that levelled the Brandon Hills United Church, and with vandalism to more than 100 tombstones in the Brandon Hills and Roseland cemeteries. He was also charged with cemetery vandalism in Lethbridge, Alta., after more than 200 headstones were kicked over last June.
The people who torched the Minnedosa United Church didn't strike a blow against world religion, but against their neighbour, says the church's minister.
"You aren't hurting the institution or the church, you are hurting your neighbour," said Rev. Shawn Ankenmann.
The people hurting are the elderly who frequent the church for teas and bake sales, girl guides and cubs who hold their meetings in its basement and those who look to the church to hold their weddings, showers and funerals, Ankenmann said.
The loss of the church has been difficult, but worse is the "loss of innocence" that came with it, Ankenmann said.
"It's an act of thoughtless vindictiveness. It doesn't even make me angry — it makes me very sad that people can be sucked in by that stuff."
Since the fire, worshippers have been sharing pews at the St. Alphonsus Catholic Church.
The church board is hoping to rebuild within the next two years. Ankenmann said the building committee is now interviewing architects and is continuing to fundraise.
"We are putting one foot in front of another and taking things as they come,' he said.