Kent County men plead guilty in church arson case

DOVER — Two Kent County men are facing up to 29 years in prison after pleading guilty Monday morning in a felony arson case involving three rural churches that burned in the Felton area last December.

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Alex J. Harrington Jr., left, and Joseph T. Skochelak, were arrested Dec. 8.

Co-defendants Joseph T. Skochelak, 26, of Felton, and Alex J. Harrington Jr., 27, of Frederica, each pleaded to three counts of second-degree arson, second-degree conspiracy and third-degree burglary in Kent County Superior Court.

A pre-sentence investigation was ordered by Resident Judge William L. Witham Jr., and sentencing scheduled for June 23.

The case revolved around three overnight fires on Dec. 2 at Healing Hands Christian Church in the 500 block of Berrytown Road, Laws Mennonite Church on Carpenter Bridge Road and Manship Chapel in the 4900 block of Burnite Mill Road. Also involved was a burglary at St. James Union AME Church in the 4000 block of Andrews Lake Road.

Dressed in Delaware Department of Correction prisoner clothes, escorted by guards and shackled at the ankles, Skochelak and Harrington entered pleas separately during a 15-minute process attended by leaders of Laws Mennonite Church, Manship Chapel and St. James Union AME Church.

Afterward, a woman fighting back tears and identifying herself as Skochelak’s mother went to four church members gathered outside the courtroom and offered an apology before exchanging emotional hugs with them.

“God is all about forgiveness,” Laws Mennonite Head Elder Josh Slabaugh said to the woman.

“We forgive him.”

The woman followed with, “Thank God no one was hurt.”

The woman said she attended the proceeding, “Just to let (my son) know I’m there for him … and to say I’m sorry.”

Said St. James Union AME Church pastor Harvey Sparkman, “It shows her remorse. However, parents aren’t responsible for (the actions of) their children.”

After she left, Manship’s pastor Bruce Tribbitt said he would pray for the woman and described her as a victim as well.

Regarding the two men who pleaded guilty, the pastor said:
“We would like these gentlemen to get their lives together and have Jesus Christ transform their lives.”

Mr. Tribbitt said in the days following the fires, his congregation was affected by “a level of fear until they got caught. We were concerned they could come back to finish the job.”

Mr. Slabaugh said, “We recognize that the state’s job is to determine justice that’s for the good of the public. The church’s job is to show mercy …”

Also attending was Dale Jones, a Laws Mennonite board of trustees member.

The co-defendants also were ordered to pay restitution and have no contact with all victims, which Judge Witham described as the churches.

“Fines may be imposed at the court’s discretion,” Judge Witham said.

Deputy Attorney General Marie Graham said the state did not plan to prosecute the remaining counts in the indictment — two counts each of third-degree burglary and second-degree conspiracy. She declined comment afterward, citing pending sentencing.

After earlier pleading not guilty, the co-defendants entered into plea negotiations announced at a Final Case Review last Wednesday.

When distributing a news release about the fires in December, the Delaware Fire Marshal’s office estimated that Healing Hands suffered $75,000 in damage, Laws Mennonite sustained $10,000 and Manship Chapel had $1,000.

Healing Hands update

As the small congregation of about 30 members at Healing Hands Christian Church waits for a new home of worship, it has moved to Felton-Viola United Methodist Church temporarily.

The remains of Healing Hands Christian Church along Berrytown Road near Felton after the Dec. 2 fire. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

The remains of Healing Hands Christian Church along Berrytown Road near Felton after the Dec. 2 fire. (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

Members are raising money to build another church and searching for a location while conducting services at the nearby church since early December, pastor Wilbert Moorer said earlier this month.

Help has poured in from other organizations, and things are progressing well, according to Mr. Moorer.

Although the site that burned down was not insured because of its age, Mr. Moorer does not anticipate trouble in raising funds for a new church. Despite some setbacks, he is confident he’ll find a suitable location, hopefully nearby, and has one spot off U.S. 13 in mind.

Although the church — which was founded in 2002 by Mr. Moorer — serves a small roster of people, members made a big impact in the pastor’s eye.

“We were powerful in spirit,” he said. “I believe that’s why the devil recognized us.

“He doesn’t care how many members go in the church. He cares how many members go out of the church and make an impact in the community. We were making a mark and he doesn’t like changes.”

Despite the loss of the building, the pastor said he has forgiven the two men who pleaded guilty to the arsons.

In fact, he said he and other members would welcome the duo should they be interested in rebuilding the church and attending service at Healing Hands.

That strikes the pastor as a particularly fitting fate.

“God’s word is our instructor for right living. He never instructed us to do nothing but live like himself,” he said, touting the philosophy of turning the other cheek.

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