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House explosion being investigated as hate crime after racial slurs and symbols found in rubble

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Jack Rooney
The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio

Local, state and federal officials are investigating a house explosion early Wednesday morning as a possible hate crime after racial slurs and a swastika were found spray-painted on the garage and a neighboring garage.

The Sterling Fire District responded at 12:36 a.m. to 6743 Spruce St. and found the house, which was unoccupied at the time of the explosion, fully involved and knocked to the ground, Fire Chief Josh Glessner said. The home was reduced to rubble.

No injuries were reported.

There had been an accidental electrical fire at the home on July 3, and the homeowners were staying elsewhere while the house was being repaired, authorities said.

The couple who live at the home are biracial.

“Right now, we’re investigating this as a hate crime,” sheriff’s Capt. Doug Hunter said.

He declined to discuss potential suspects.

Sheriff Travis Hutchinson said racial slurs and a swastika were spray-painted on a garage in blue paint.

“We are not going to tolerate that type of activity and behavior here,” he said during a news conference at the scene.

The FBI, state fire marshal investigators and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been called in for the investigation.

The sheriff said a construction crew working at the house Tuesday had reported smelling gas. Hunter said they’re still working to determine if there’s any connection between the gas smell and the explosion. He said the crew called the fire department.

Firefighters, the sheriff’s office and Columbia Gas responded and shut off the gas and took out the meter Tuesday afternoon. They also didn’t see any graffiti on the garage the previous day, Hunter said.

According to a news release from the state fire marshal’s office, “an unknown suspect(s) unsuccessfully attempted to ignite the home (Tuesday) by filling it with natural gas and turning the stove burner on.”

The state fire marshal’s office is investigating the incident as arson, and is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the fire. Anyone with information should call the state fire marshal’s tip line at 800-589-2728.

The house had also been broken into last week, Hunter said. An unknown suspect forced entry through the back door last Tuesday and caused minor damage inside the house, including breaking light bulbs, Hunter said.

At this point, Hunter added, it’s too early to determine if last week’s break-in and Wednesday morning’s explosion are related.

Angela Frase, 55, and her husband Brad, 60, had lived in the two-story home at the end of Spruce Street together since 1997 and were a year away from paying off the mortgage, Angela Frase said.

“That makes you even more sick to your stomach,” she said. “… I’m just lost. I don’t know what to even think anymore.”

The couple and their two cats were not living in the home immediately before the explosion. An electrical fire damaged their house about a month ago, and they were living at a hotel in Seville while they waited for repairs to be completed. They expected to move back into their home in early September, Angela Frase said.

She added that she and her husband have enjoyed living in the quiet area, a tree-lined block with six houses on it. The Frases’ house was the last house on the south side of the street and bordered a field.

“You don’t have traffic coming back and forth, except for your neighbors,” Angela Frase said of her block. “Nobody comes down here unless, usually, they live here or they come to visit. Otherwise, it’s just nice, quiet and peaceful. And I like that country feel. We have the field beside us, the creek. I like the country. And Sterling’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody, so it’s kind of nice.”

Angela Frase, who is black, said she and her husband, who is white, have never experienced any sort of racial prejudice in the area before, and they have no idea who might have done this, she said.

“I’m just baffled,” Angela Frase said. “… I have no clue. I don’t know anybody that would want to hurt us.”

And while the Frases had moved some of their belongings out of the house, Angela Frase said the majority of the couple’s things, including furniture, clothes and family heirlooms, were still in the house. She said she was especially sad to lose mementos of her father Joe and younger brother Shawn, both of whom have died.

“And they’re gone now,” Angela Frase said. “That’s something you can’t replace. It’s gone.”

Several of the Frases’ neighbors expressed similar distress over the incident.

“Honestly, it’s really scary,” said Crystal Pasterchek, who lives next door with her boyfriend. “It does not sit well with me at all. It’s all just so surreal to me, honestly. I’m kind of just shocked.”

Dayton Ray Sharp, who has lived across the street from the Frases for just over a year, but has known the couple for about 10 years, said he’s upset about the incident.

“That’s plain senseless,” Sharp said, adding that Angela and Brad Frase are good neighbors.

“You couldn’t want better neighbors than what they are,” he said.

A neighbor living on Kauffman Avenue was the first to call 911 to report the fire. This caller saw flames coming from the back of the house and said she knocked on the front door to see if anyone was home. Before she hung up, she reported smoke pouring out of the house.

A second caller told a Wayne County dispatcher, “Our neighbor’s house just blew up.” She described the noise as an explosion and said it had woken up her parents.

A third caller also reported a “big boom” coming from the house and seeing the house in flames. This caller also reported this was not the first time this month that the house had caught on fire.

“Apparently the explosion was so great that it shook many of the homes in the area,” Hunter said.

Pasterchek, whose car, along with her boyfriend’s truck and their garage, also was vandalized last night, said she hopes law enforcement will apprehend anyone responsible for the explosion.

“I hope they find who did this,” she said. “I really hope that Angela and Brad get some kind of justice out of this. This is not good, not for our small little town.”

Rick Armon and Emily Morgan contributed to this report.

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©2019 The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio

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