A gas can-wielding man who barricaded himself in a Long Island church and threatened to burn it down apparently killed himself during a standoff with police, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said at a press conference Friday.
Smoke was seen at the chuch shortly before 5 p.m. as a SWAT team went in and out of the building.
Authorities first got a call about the man around 1:30 p.m. Friday. The caller, an retired NYPD sergeant, said a man was setting fire to a van in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church at Main Street and Ocean Avenue in Center Moriches, Sini said.
When officers arrived, the man threw a gas can at them and tried to set them on fire, authorities said. The officers were not injured and the man ran into the church.
Officers who tried to enter the church saw incendiary devices that appeared to be propane tanks, and one officer who entered the church encountered the suspect, who threw gasoline at him and lit a match, starting a fire. The officer was unharmed. The severity of the fire is unknown.
Police blocked off some streets in the area and a large emergency presence was visible at the scene by 3 p.m. At one point an ESU robot was seen heading into the church to give police a better idea of what was happening inside.
Suffolk Police said the man, later identified as 42-year-old John Beneventano, of Shirley, killed himself inside the church. It appears no one else was injured in the standoff, they said.
Our Lady Queen Of Apostles, a school serving K-8 students located about a mile from the church, was evacuated as a precaution, said Sean Dolan, the spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. About 200 students were evacuated, Dolan said.
Members of the community were gathering around the church. Some said they've never seen anything like this before in their town.
Melissa Bunshaft said she'd been going to the church since she was a little kid.
"Stuff like this never happens out here, so to see it go down is just completely insane," Bunshaft said.
One parishioner said her children received their communion at the church and her grandchildren were baptized there.
"I saw cops just swarming past me," she said. "It's crazy, it's crazy."
On Friday evening, Bishop John Barres called it "a sad day for all of us on Long Island" and said Masses and services would be held in the school auditorium.
"We pray for the individual involved and his family," Barres said. "We also pray for healing in the days ahead for the St. John the Evangelist parish community."