Salem man accused of deliberately starting fire at St. Joseph Catholic Church

Police say a Salem man started a dumpster fire Thursday morning that damaged St. Joseph Catholic Church in one of the largest structure fires in recent Salem history.

Billy J. Sweeten, 48, was arrested and booked into Marion County Jail Wednesday on accusations of first-degree arson, the jail’s roster showed.

Police and fire officials have not said how they determined the fire was set deliberately or how it was started. 

The blaze ravaged one of Salem’s most storied churches and shut down surrounding downtown streets for nearly 10 hours as firefighters contained the fire and police investigated.

Court records showed Sweeten has a lengthy criminal history with convictions dating back to 1994. 

He was most recently charged on Aug. 24 in Marion County Circuit Court with unlawful entry into a motor vehicle and second-degree criminal mischief. Court documents say the crimes he was accused of occurred in late July and included damaging a car mirror.

When he failed to appear for an Aug. 28 arraignment hearing, records show a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Sweeten was previously charged in May 2021 with reckless burning after he was accused of setting fire to a woman’s house. Prosecutors dismissed the charge three months later as part of a plea deal.

Court records listed his address as the Union Gospel Mission of Salem.

Fire crews responded around 2:30 a.m. to a report of a dumpster fire on the church property, located at 721 Chemeketa St N.E. They arrived to find that tall flames from the dumpster fire had spread to the roof of the church building, Salem Police Department announced in a news release Thursday afternoon.

The Salem Fire Department requested help from other fire agencies in the region within an hour when the fire was upgraded to a four-alarm status. 

The fire was updated to five alarms 15 minutes later, according to Deputy Fire Chief Scott Leavell. Each additional alarm means more people and resources are needed to fight the fire.

Police reported no injuries. “Firefighters safely evacuated a priest living in an adjacent building on the church property,” according to the police statement. 

Several roads were closed for about ten hours as crews worked to put out the fire and during the investigation.

Fire departments of Marion County, Polk County, Dallas and Keizer helped respond to the fire.

“Due to the suspicious circumstances of the fire, arson detectives from the Salem Police Felony Crimes Unit responded to the scene for the investigation,” which resulted in Sweeten’s arrest, according to the police statement. 

Salem police spokeswoman Angela Hedrick did not respond to questions from Salem Reporter about how the fire started or how investigators determined it was an arson.

Brian Carrara, Salem deputy fire chief of administrative services, declined to answer the same questions. He referred the news organization to Salem police because “this case is now criminal in nature.”

“Salem Fire firefighters and dispatchers, in conjunction with mutual aid resources, were integral in containing and suppressing this significant structure fire. I appreciate the effort by all the emergency responders on this incident,” Salem Fire Chief Mike Niblock said in the news release.

Police Chief Trevor Womack in the statement also thanked the officers and arson investigators who he said worked throughout the night on the case.

“The church building holds a historical significance in our city, and their diligence in quickly apprehending the suspect helped to bring justice to the community,” Womack wrote.


St. Joseph’s congregation grieves, prays after arson damages Salem sanctuary

4-alarm fire hits St. Joseph Parish in downtown Salem

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.