HOULTON, Maine — The FBI has charged a Houlton man of Bulgarian origin with hate crimes for allegedly burning down a church in Springfield, Massachusetts, in late December that had a predominantly Black congregation.

Dushko Vulchev, 44, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who had been living in the Houlton area for several years, when he traveled to western Massachusetts sometime in the late 2020, according to court documents. In the days preceding the arson at the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Vulchev also allegedly slashed the tires of several vehicles in the general vicinity, most of which had Black owners.

The interior of the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, after fire destroyed the building. Credit: Courtesy of the FBI

The documents also say that several smaller fires, believed to have been committed by Vulchev, had occurred at the church earlier in December, before a large fire on Dec. 28, which destroyed the building.

Vulchev has been charged with damage to religious property and use of fire to commit a federal felony. He faces up to a combined 30 years in prison for both charges and a $250,000 fine.

Law enforcement officials began suspecting Vulchev after he was spotted on several security cameras, including from a Tesla vehicle that had its tires slashed. Vulchev’s own vehicle, a silver Chevy Cruze, was identified on city video footage near the church shortly before the Dec. 28 arson took place.

On Dec. 30, police in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, received a complaint of an erratic driver whose license plate matched that of Vulchev’s vehicle. After stopping the vehicle, police alerted FBI Special Agent Matthew Fontaine of the Springfield Resident Agency, who observed police questioning Vulchev. The next day, Vulchev was arrested on charges pertaining to the church fires and tire slashings in Springfield. The FBI searched his home in Houlton several days later following the arrest.

After seizure of Vulchev’s smartphone and computer, and interviews with several witnesses who knew Vulchev personally, the FBI determined that Vulchev had committed the arson and slashings due to racial hatred of African Americans and beliefs in white supremacy.

In Skype messages sent in the weeks before the arson, Vulchev sent several messages to his ex-girlfriend in which he used several racial epithets toward Black people, telling her to only pay store clerks of a certain race as part of what he called a “DNA war.”

Another witness, described as Vulchev’s ex-wife, shared email communications that also demonstrated Vulchev’s hostility toward African-Americans and Islam.

“We need to do anything to eliminate Islam, [because] the blacks here are the one who buys propaganda the most,” one email attributed to Vulchev said. “Not the latinos who are catholic and not the natives but the blacks.”

Photos on Vulchev’s phone also showed pictures of a firearm, Adolf Hitler and a mural that said “White Lives Matter.”

Vulchev’s first court date has not been set, and federal prosecutors are requesting Vulchev be held without bail.