STERLING TOWNSHIP, Ohio - An overnight house fire and explosion in Sterling Township has been deemed an arson and investigators are exploring whether it was racially motivated.
Wayne County Sheriff Travis Hutchinson said the incident was being investigated as a possible hate crime against the interracial couple who owned the home due to a swastika and racial slur that were spray painted nearby.
Investigators from the State Fire Marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spent the day sifting through rubble of the Spruce Street home, which was leveled by the explosion. The cause of the blast remained under investigation. No one was hurt.
A neighbor who called 911 around 12:40 a.m. Wednesday reported the back of the home was on fire and told a dispatcher when she knocked on the door, nobody answered. Subsequent callers reported hearing a loud blast.
Homeowner Angela Frase told FOX 8 a neighbor called to alert her about the fire and she arrived to find her home gone.
"I just want to sit down and cry again," Frase said. "It's gone. Everything we own is gone."
Frase said she and her husband have been staying in a nearby hotel provided by their insurance company after another fire damaged their home on July 3. The State Fire Marshal's office said that fire was ruled accidental.
"I'm blessed we were not here," Frase said. "If we were here, we would not be alive."
After the explosion, investigators discovered a swastika had been spray-painted on the home's garage. A racist slur was left on a neighbor's pickup truck, along with graffiti left on the neighbor's garage. Hutchinson said the graffiti is what prompted the investigation of a potential hate crime.
"We are not going to tolerate that type of activity and behavior here," he said.
On Tuesday morning, hours before the explosion, workers renovating the house reported a gas odor to authorities. The Wayne County Sheriff's office said a deputy responded and found that a gas stove burner was turned on but not ignited because the home's electricity had been shut off after the previous fire.
A spokesperson for Columbia Gas said its crews shut off gas to the home and removed the gas meter late Tuesday morning.
Wayne County Sheriff's office spokesman Captain Doug Hunter said no one had been ruled out as a suspect.
Last week, Frase reported a break-in at the home occurred between 7 p.m. on July 29 and 8 a.m. on July 30. According to an incident report, the window of a rear door was broken and items inside the home were damaged, but nothing was stolen.
Investigators said there had been no racist incidents previously reported.
"I don't know where this is coming from, why someone would target us," Frase said. "We've been here 23 years, never had a problem, and now this? We decided that whatever happened, we're not rebuilding here. We're not coming back. We're done."
The State Fire Marshal's office said a reward of up to $5,000 was being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fire. The State Fire Marshal's tip line is 800-589-2728.