The burnt rear wall of the Roanoke Avenue church as it appeared Sunday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

There was “no indication” that the man charged with arson in the fire this weekend at Luz En Tu Senda church targeted the church because it is a Latino congregation, Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said today.

The crime is not being investigated as a hate crime, Hegermiller said.

Lee Ragland in a 2017 mug shot

Police say Lee A. Ragland, 33, of Riverhead, intentionally set fire to a garbage receptacle located against the rear wall of the church building shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday. Surveillance cameras at the church captured images of a man setting the fire and detectives later arrested Ragland for the crime. The fire caused about $50,000 worth of damages to both the interior and exterior of the church, according to the criminal complaint, which cited the statement of a church official.

Ragland is facing a felony charge of arson in the third degree and on Sunday morning, Riverhead Town Justice Lori Hulse ordered him held without bail due to prior felony convictions.

Hegermiller said Ragland gave no statements that indicated he acted out of bias.

“There was no evidence to support that,” the chief said. “We don’t have blinders on.”

A Freedom of Information Law request seeking release of a statement Ragland gave to police was denied by the department because the matter is an ongoing investigation.

Under New York Penal Law, a person commits a hate crime when one of a specified set of offenses is committed targeting a victim because of a perception or belief about their race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation, or when such an act is committed as a result of that type of perception or belief, according to the N.Y. State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Investigating officers are responsible for identifying an offense as a hate crime and, when reporting the incident, specifying the bias motivation, the agency said.

The Riverhead Town Police Department has not classified any criminal incidents as hate crimes so far this year. None were reported in Riverhead in 2018.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in its last release of hate crime data a year ago, said hate crime reports were down in Suffolk County in 2017.

Suffolk County Police in 2018 reported its Hate Crimes Unit investigating 73 incidents as hate crime cases, with 21 of those being classified as DCJS Specified Hate Crimes. According to the Suffolk County Police Department’s 2018 Hate Crimes Annual Report, 43% of all hate crimes reported in the county occurred at places of worship.

The LGBT community was the most frequently targeted demographic for hate crimes in Suffolk in 2018, according to the report. Religion was the most frequently targeted demographic in the county in 2017.

Hate crimes reported by Suffolk County Police in 2018 were: petit larceny, criminal mischief, aggravated harassment and assault.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.