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Deaths in St. Paul’s rectory fire officially ruled suicide, homicide

(Dec. 6, 2013) Preliminary findings from city agencies investigating last week’s deadly fire at St. Paul’s were released Tuesday, with officials confirming that the deaths of John Sterner and the Rev. David Dingwall have been ruled a suicide and homicide, respectively.

However, “we may never know [Sterner’s] true intent,” said Capt. Michael Colbert of the Ocean City Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division.

“We have no indication of malice toward the church,” Colbert said. “We’re fairly certain he intended to take his own life. As far as the aftermath of that, we don’t know if that was intentional or not. We will likely never know.”

Firefighters responded at 9:25 a.m. on Tuesday, November 26, to find the rectory of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea ablaze. The fire had started in the ground-level food and clothing pantry, known as the Shepherd’s Crook. Although joined to the church itself, the rectory was constructed as a separate building and is located just north of the church on Third Street and Baltimore Avenue.

Multiple witnesses alleged that Sterner had started the blaze after entering the Shepherd’s Crook with his body on fire. Official findings from the city this week confirmed that Sterner “entered the structure with a significant amount of fire on and about his person,” causing the rapid spread of flames in the historic building.

Although the fire was quickly contained by the Ocean City Fire Department, Sterner was deceased when found by firefighters on the ground floor.

“Our initial attack crews conducted a search of that floor and came into contact with the first victim, John Sterner,” said city Fire Marshal David Hartley, noting that Sterner’s injuries were “clearly incompatible with life.”

Hartley also confirmed that the man seen purchasing gasoline briefly before the incident on a surveillance video, widely circulated last week, was Sterner.

“We confirmed that he did purchase gasoline at the [downtown Ocean City Shell] station, and transported that to the church,” Hartley said. “At that time, we believe he doused himself with gasoline and ignited himself outside the Shepherd’s Crook.”

However, an eyewitness interviewed this week by Ocean City Today recalled that Sterner had been outside the Shepherd’s Crook eating a sandwich, and had been ignited after asking for a light of his cigarette rom a church volunteer, identified as Dana Truitt.

After igniting, Sterner grabbed Truitt, causing her severe burns, according to several other witness accounts. Truitt is being treated at Johns Hopkins’ Bayview Medical Center.

Authorities have not yet conducted an interview with Truitt, Colbert said Tuesday, and the investigation will remain open until that can occur.

“We do not have any other witnesses at this point who actually saw [Sterner] go up [in flames],” Hartley said.

The first and second floors sustained significant fire damage, according to the OCFD. Dingwall’s office was on the third floor, and witnesses believe he was attempting to escape after gathering paperwork from his office when he was overcome. Three others were able to flee safely.

Hartley said firefighters found Dingwall on the second floor, in the midst of “intense heat and smoke.” He was taken to Atlantic General Hospital, where he died later that evening.

The state medical examiner in Baltimore has ruled Dingwall’s death “homicide by smoke inhalation,” Colbert said. Sterner’s death has been ruled “suicide by thermal burns and smoke inhalation.”

The fact that Sterner used an accelerant indicates that he desired his own demise, Colbert said, but the OCPD has thus far not uncovered a motive “in the sense that he was going after any group or individual.”

The case will be forwarded to the state’s attorney for potential legal action, Colbert said, “but at this time I don’t know what the recommendation will be.”

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