Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Transient is charged with 20 church fires

A Tennessee transient was indicted Thursday in a yearlong chain of church fires from Winter Haven to the Florida-Alabama border.

Patrick Lee Frank, 41, a drifter committed to a state mental hospital, has been indicted in 20 church fires.

Frank was indicted in Florida on charges that he set fire to 16 churches; he was indicted on four counts for church fires in East Ridge, Tenn., his hometown.

More than 50 Florida churches have burned since April 1990.

"The indictment outlines a series of arsons which have damaged or destroyed numerous churches, caused untold millions of dollars in damages, and threatened the exercise of one of our most precious rights; the freedom to worship in safety and without fear," U.S. Attorney Ken Sukhia said.

Frank was indicted by a Tallahassee grand jury on 10 counts; he faces a sentence of up to 10 years per count, Sukhia said.

Gainesville investigators said they have evidence, including sightings, that place Frank at or near all the Gainesville churches before and after each fire.

"Well, I guess we're having mixed feelings," said the Rev. David Pittman, rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Gainesville, one of the first churches to burn. "We're certainly very appreciative of the (police and fire) services involved."

"There's also a feeling of sadness that such things happen."

Pittman said he has no ill feelings toward Frank, who was ruled incompetent to stand trial on unrelated Ocala charges.

"If he's judged by the court to be incompetent, one would hope that he get the kind of care he needs."

Sukhia described the Church Arson Task Force, the multi-agency group investigating the fires, as "one of the largest task forces ever assembled to investigate a series of arsons."

The task force is made up of more than 200 agents, including officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Gainesville Police Department, Gainesville Fire and Rescue Department, the State Fire Marshal and the Ocala Police and Fire departments.

Sukhia said Frank will be arraigned in several Florida federal districts.

Last month, Frank was ruled incompetent to stand trial on unrelated trespassing and loitering charges in Ocala. Marion County Judge John Futch ordered Frank commited to a state mental hospital for six months.

Frank, a schizophrenic, was arrested in November in Ocala after task force members followed him to an abandoned house.

A court-ordered psychiatrist said Frank is aware that he has been implicated in the Florida church fires.

Frank suffers from delusions and says he is being followed by a phantom detective named Rico, according to a Jan. 16 psychiatric evaluation. Frank complains that "Detective Rico" stalks him wherever he goes, threatening to arrest him, the report states.

Frank told a psychiatrist, "Mr. Rico drives me crazy," the reports says. Why would Rico follow him, Frank was asked. He answered:

"I suppose it is for amusement."

As the arson cases were announced Thursday, a state prosecutor dropped the misdemeanor charges. Judge Futch then rescinded his order that had committed Frank to a mental hospital, and he was released to federal custody.

The fires

These are the church fires that Patrick Lee Frank was charged with setting in Florida:


Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

North Central Baptist Church

United Church of Gainesville

First Church of Christ Scientist

First Lutheran Church

Westwood Church of God

St. Augustine Church and Catholic Student Center


First Baptist Church

First Presbyterian Church

St. Augustine

First Church of Christ-Scientist

McDowell Baptist Church

First Baptist Church

Winter Haven

Cypress Cathedral Church

First Church of Christ-Scientist


First Presbyterian Church, Lake City

Fellowship Baptist Church, High Springs