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Update: Man, 23, arrested in connection with Coachella mosque fire

Jail booking photo of Carl James Dial Jr., 23, of Palm Desert. Dial was arrested in connection with the alleged arson fire at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley mosque in Coachella on Dec. 11, 2015.
Jail booking photo of Carl James Dial Jr., 23, of Palm Desert. Dial was arrested in connection with the alleged arson fire at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley mosque in Coachella on Dec. 11, 2015.
Riverside County Sheriff's Department

A Palm Desert man has been arrested in connection with Friday's fire at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley that authorities are calling a potential hate crime.

Carl James Dial Jr., 23, was taken into custody in Palm Desert on Friday and booked into the Riverside County Jail in Indio on felony charges, including commission of a hate crime, maliciously setting a fire, second-degree burglary and two arson charges, Coachella Chief of Police Andrew Shouse confirmed.

The sheriff's department announced late Friday that a person of interest had been detained shortly after the fire. Dial was placed under arrest shortly before 9 p.m. Friday and booked into the jail at the Indio Larson Justice Center at about 1:46 a.m. Saturday, according to jail booking records.

More details were to be forthcoming, Shouse said. The sheriff's department provides police services for the city of Coachella.

Flames were reported just after noon Friday at the mosque in the 84-600 block of Avenue 49, in the city of Coachella, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. The fire was contained to the small building's front lobby but smoke damaged other areas. No one was injured.

By late Friday night, the Sheriff's Department released a statement calling the blaze "an intentional act" and saying it would use all available resources to investigate.

People at the mosque described hearing a "loud boom" and seeing flames, said Reymundo Nour, the mosque's acting imam, who was not on the site at the time. He said the mosque had been "firebombed."

Authorities provided no details on how the fire was set or whether the department has any suspects.

State fire investigators, the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI are assisting in the investigation.

The mosque is about 75 miles from San Bernardino, where last week a couple who federal officials say were inspired by Islamist extremists killed 14 people. Some Muslims in Southern California and beyond have worried about the potential for reprisals, while leaders of various faiths have called for tolerance.

AP video

In a statement released Friday evening, U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, whose district includes the area in which the mosque is located, called on authorities to investigate the blaze as a possible hate crime.

"Our faith in humanity will not be intimidated," he said. "And we stand together against any form (of) violence towards the innocent."

County and city officials also condemned the attack.

"We see this as a cowardly act of vandalism that we not tolerate in our community," Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez said.

The mosque was hit by gunfire in November 2014 in what authorities investigated as a possible hate crime. No one was injured in the early morning incident. The case remains under investigation, and no arrests have been made.

"We see this as a cowardly act of vandalism that we not tolerate in our community,” Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez said in a statement. "Freedom of religion is one of our core values in this country, so any time we witness violence or vandalism directed at a religious institution, it flies in the face of everything we stand for and believe in as Americans.”

An FBI spokesperson told KPCC that the agency was responding to the mosque to assist local law enforcement partners, adding that anytime there is concern a house of worship may have been targeted, the FBI would respond to investigate the cause and whether or not it was deliberate. A Riverside County Sheriff's Department forensic services vehicle was also at the scene.

"Law enforcement agencies are investigating this crime as potential arson attack and we will support their efforts as much as we can to ensure that those who are responsible for this crime are taken into custody and face the legal consequences of their actions," Hernandez said.

"I would think that this is terrorism," Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said, according to the Desert Sun.

A fire broke out shortly after noon at the Islamic center in the Coachella Valley Friday.
A fire broke out shortly after noon at the Islamic center in the Coachella Valley Friday.
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Salah Alwishah, who attends the mosque regularly, said he arrived while firefighters were extinguishing the flames. He posted a video of the scene on Facebook

Alwishah said a friend who had been in the mosque told him they'd heard a loud "thud" — which might have been the front door slamming — and saw flames spreading in the entrance and along the walls. "And that's when they stepped down and ran outside through a back door and called 911," he said. 

When he arrived, Alwishah said worshippers were gathered behind yellow tape in front of the building. 

"They were all just in shock, devastated that this had happened here in our own backyard, in our community," Alwishah said. "We just took a break from work — from being a doctor, from doing whatever career we're into — just to go worship God with our families and to show up to our mosque being burnt. And they expected us to be in there.  That's very devastating."

Alwishah added that the incident wouldn't change anything about when or how often he attends services at the center.

"Nothing at all. Everything stays the same," he said. "Our ultimate view of everything is that, you know, God is our protector no matter what happens. We worshipped God today in the street, because you can worship God anywhere. But that's just the mosque that we have and we want to be safe in it." 

— This story was updated from a previous report.