OCEAN CITY — One week after the fatal fire at a historic downtown church, more details have emerged, including the death of the beloved pastor being ruled a homicide and the death of the perpetrator a suicide.
Around 9:25 a.m. last Tuesday, Ocean City Communications received a call in reference to a fire at the St. Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal Church on Baltimore Ave. at 3rd Street. The Ocean City Fire Department responded and first-arriving units found fire coming from the church rectory. Preliminary findings by investigators indicated a suspect, later identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City, entered the building with a significant amount of fire on and about his person, which quickly spread to the structure.
Sterner was found deceased inside the building by first-arriving firefighters. According to Ocean City Fire Marshal David Hartley on Tuesday, fire crews entered the first floor of the area of the church rectory known as the Shepherd’s Crook and came into contact with Sterner, who had suffered “injuries incompatible with life,” and who was determined to be deceased at the scene.
After the fire was brought under control, firefighters then began a search of the second floor of the structure and found the church pastor, Reverend David Dingwall, amid heavy smoke and heat conditions. Dingwall, who was unconscious at the time, was quickly removed from the building and treated briefly at the scene by Ocean City paramedics before being transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries.
A female victim, identified this week as Dana Truitt, 42, of Ocean City, also sustained serious injuries while attempting to exit the Shepherd’s Crook facility during the fire. Truitt was reportedly working at the Shepherd’s Crook facility as a volunteer at the time of the blaze. She was treated on scene by Ocean City paramedics and was ultimately transported to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore this week where she remains in critical, but stable condition.
At a joint press conference outside the Public Safety Building on Tuesday, Hartley said the investigation identified Sterner as the individual who started the fire. The Fire Marshal’s Office worked closely with the OCPD Criminal Investigation Division on the investigation, which included interviewing several witnesses and collecting surveillance video that clearly showed Sterner purchasing gasoline in a container at the Shell station at the foot of the Route 50 bridge a few blocks away from the church just about 20 minutes before the blaze.
“He purchased gasoline from the Shell station and transported it to an area near the church where he doused himself and ignited the fire in front of the Shepherd’s Crook,” said Hartley on Tuesday. “He then walked into the Shepherd’s Crook, fully engulfed in fire, and came into contact with the adult female victim. Three others safely made it out. We conducted numerous interviews and collected evidence indicating Sterner, using the gasoline as an accelerant, ignited the fire and entered the building with a significant amount of fire on and about his person.”
OCPD Captain Michael Colbert said at Tuesday’s press conference the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled the manner of Dingwall’s death a homicide caused by smoke inhalation. The medical examiner’s office has also ruled Sterner’s manner of death as suicide by way of thermal burns and smoke inhalation.
Colbert said the investigation remains open and new details would be provided as they become available.
“We’re still going through the process, and we’ve exhausted most of our witness interviews, but there is still one more victim we need to interview and the investigation remains open until such as time as we can interview the other victim,” he said.
Colbert said the investigation did not include any evidence of Sterner’s intention in the incident, only that it appears he attempted, and succeeded, at killing himself.
“There is no indication he was trying to single anybody out, nor is there any evidence he acted with malice toward the church,” he said. “There is no indication of motivation and we may never know his true intent. We are fairly certain he intended to take his own life, but there is no evidence of intent as far as the church or any individual.”
Colbert said the investigation is being treated as a homicide.
“The investigation remains open and we’re treating it as a homicide,” he said. “Once we’ve concluded our investigation, we will forward all of the information to the State’s Attorney’s Office for review.”
Hartley addressed the issue of the possible relationship between Sterner and the female victim.
“At some point after he ignited himself, he did come into contact with the female victim, but to what extent we do not know,” said Hartley. “There has been no indication thus far of any relationships between Sterner and the victims. There is no indication, positive or negative, of a relationship between Sterner and the victims.”
Hartley and Colbert said their agencies were not formally prepared to release any information on the female victim.
“She is the victim of a serious crime,” said Colbert. “We’re not going to reference her name or any details on her condition, just as we wouldn’t do in any criminal investigation.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan spoke at Tuesday’s press conference and referenced the grief experienced by the St. Paul’s parish and the entire Ocean City community.
“I’m no stranger to press conferences, but this is certainly a rare one involving an incident so shocking that it has devastated our entire community,” he said. “On behalf of the town of Ocean City, I want to express sympathy for the female volunteer and our sincere condolences and prayers for the Dingwall family. Our community as a whole mourns the loss of Father David and all of our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this very sad time. He will be forever remembered for making Ocean City a better place.”