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Church arson defendant says gays and women must not be church leaders

Eric Ridenour is on trial now, serving as his own attorney
Displaced but not discouraged, Douglas Churches moving forward 4 months after fires
Posted at 3:10 PM, Jul 08, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — As his trial began Monday, the man charged with burning two historic churches in Douglas in May 2023 stopped short of saying he burned the churches; but Eric Ridenour said he was living up to what he sees as God's rules against homosexuality and against women being church leaders.

Ridenour is acting as his own attorney so he was able to make an opening statement. What he described as his confession did not admit burning the churches but he said the scripture he reads says God's rules call homosexuality an abomination and that he serves Jesus Christ.

When fire ripped through St Stephen’s Episcopal church and First Presbyterian it left smoking wreckage of two historic churches at the physical and spiritual heart of Douglas.

It was late May last year when fire hit two of the four historic churches in the same square in Douglas. It didn’t take long for investigators to find signs of arson.

Investigators quickly linked Eric Ridenour to the fires. They say surveillance video caught him near the church as the fires broke out and say a detection dog found traces of fuel for the fires on his clothes.

At the time of the fire St Stephen’s had a gay pastor, First Presbyterian has a female pastor.

Prosecutors say people who had contact with Ridenour say he thought gay and female church leaders were an insult to God.

Those witnesses will be part of the prosecution’s case.

"It was really heartbreaking to us, as a whole community, not just us because it’s a landmark, our church is a landmark along with the others. It was build in 1906,” Manuel Valenzuela said.

Manuel and Sylvia Valenzuela are members of First Presbyterian who came to see Ridenour stand trial.

“He tried to destroy the church. He destroyed the building, but he didn’t destroy the church, because we the people are the church,” Sylvia said.

Prosecutors are calling detectives and arson investigators as their witnesses. Ridenour has said the Bible will be his main witness.

The first prosecution witness was a Douglas Police officer. Jurors viewed his body camera video taken as he kicked down doors of one of the burning churches and called out to make sure no one was inside. Ridenour showed no reaction as he watched the video.

Though he is able to crossexamine witnesses, he asked no questions of the police officer or the Federal arson investigator who finished Monday's testimony.