Footage led police to Maine man charged with hate crimes in Massachusetts church arson

Megan Gray, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·4 min read

Apr. 16—A Houlton man is facing federal hate crime charges for allegedly setting multiple fires at a predominantly Black church in Massachusetts.

Dushko Vulchev, 44, is charged with four counts of damage to religious property and one count of use of fire to commit a federal felony. Officials said he told people he wanted a gun to kill Black people and slashed the tires on cars belonging to people of color in the weeks before he allegedly set the fire that destroyed the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Community Church in Springfield.

"In December 2020, there was a series of small fires set at the MLK Church and a series of tire slashings in the immediate vicinity. On December 28, 2020, another fire was set at the MLK Church; this fire essentially destroyed the building," FBI Special Agent Casey Anderson wrote in an affidavit. "My investigation has established probable cause to believe that Vulchev set the fire that destroyed the MLK Church on December 28, 2020, and also that he committed the vandalism and arsons that preceded it."

Local police arrested Vulchev within days on state charges related to the tire slashings and fires, according to the affidavit, and he is in state custody. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts filed a motion for a detention hearing and said in a news release that Vulchev would make his initial appearance in federal court "at a later date." A judge appointed a federal public defender on Thursday to represent him, but that attorney said in an email that he was not in a position to discuss the case at this time.

Local media outlets have reported that the church will rebuild, and area congregations are fundraising to help with that effort. No one was injured, but one report said the fire caused more than $100,000 in damage to the building. A call and an email to the church went unanswered Thursday.

"We have seen that embodiment in the outpouring of love and support we have received since our church was destroyed by fire," Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery, the pastor, wrote on the church's Facebook page in the days after the fire. "You are a physical reminder that God is with us. We have some tough days ahead but will be sustained by the loving presence of God who holds us close and with your encouragement, prayers, and unwavering support."

The affidavit says Vulchev is a Bulgarian native who was most recently living in Houlton and has a criminal record. In 2015, he was convicted in federal court in Maine for threatening a foreign official. In 2017, he was convicted in Maine state court for domestic violence assault, domestic violence terrorizing and other charges. The affidavit does not include his sentence for that conviction.

The Springfield Fire Department responded to a small fire behind the church on Dec. 13 and two more just hours apart on Dec. 15. In all three cases, investigators determined the fires were intentionally set. Police also received reports of slashed tires on five different cars in December in the area near the church; three of the owners were Black.

The fire department responded to the final and worst fire on Dec. 28 just after 5 a.m. The affidavit includes pictures of smoke pouring out its windows that night and the burned interior in the aftermath. Investigators used surveillance footage from various sources, including a Tesla that had slashed tires, to identify Vulchev. The affidavit includes a screenshot from the Tesla video that allegedly shows Vulchev looking directly at the camera as he removes one of the wheels. Other cameras captured him walking or running near the church, the affidavit says, including just minutes before smoke started rising from the building on the morning of the last fire. Local police arrested him Dec. 31.

The affidavit also includes evidence of racial animus from images on his phone, interviews with people who knew Vulchev and years of written messages. In particular, it details messages he sent in December about wanting to "eliminate" Black people and needing a gun to kill them. Among the images were a picture of Adolf Hitler in an Adidas track suit and another of a "White Lives Matter" mural. He also regularly used a racial slur in his messages.

A conviction for damage to religious property is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The charge for use of fire to commit a federal felony carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years.