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Man poured gas on self before deadly Ocean City church fire

Ocean City fire investigators believe that the man who entered a church on fire, igniting a blaze that killed its pastor, had poured gasoline on himself as part of a suicide plot.

The fire marshal's office said Tuesday that John Raymond Sterner covered himself in fuel and set himself on fire just before he burst into St. Paul's by the Sea Episcopal Church as volunteers were opening a Thanksgiving food bank Nov. 26.

Sterner died in the blaze, which quickly spread and was responsible for the death of the Rev. David A. Dingwall, whom firefighters found unconscious on the second floor. Dingwall died of smoke inhalation after being treated at Atlantic General Hospital in nearby Berlin.

An unidentified food bank volunteer was injured. She was being treated at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore and her condition was unknown, Ocean City officials said.

The office of the chief medical examiner ruled Dingwall's death a homicide. Sterner, who died of burns and smoke inhalation, was ruled a suicide.

The Rev. Canon Heather E. Cook of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, which includes the Eastern Shore, has said that volunteers saw Sterner run into the rectory next to the church, scream for help and hug the woman, spreading the flames to her.

Cook said Dingwall might have died while trying to save church records on a laptop from his office. Dingwall had been pastor of the church for eight years.

The church's food bank, known as Shepherd's Crook, operated out of the ground floor rear of the rectory adjacent to the church about three times a week.

Court records show that Sterner had a lengthy arrest record in Ocean City for charges that included misdemeanor assault, alcohol violations and marijuana possession, though many of the charges were dropped. The last address listed for him in court records was an Ocean City trailer park; other court documents indicated that he was homeless. It was unclear whether Sterner was a food bank client.

The church's first- and second-floor offices suffered significant damage, Ocean City officials said, and the first floor of the rectory was damaged by fire and smoke. The church's worship center and Red Doors Community Center had minimal damage, fire officials said.

"Our community has experienced unimaginable tragedy," Mayor Rick Meehan said in a statement. "Our community, as a whole, mourns the loss of Father David. 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."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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