Surprise visitor disrupts Shabbat at Berkeley church

Something wasn't right, thought Ken Schnur, as he watched a man in the parking lot pour some kind of liquid onto his '93 blue Dodge minivan.

"He's washing cars like they do in New York," he guessed, remembering how window washers would come up to his automobile at stop signs, and offer to clean his windshield for cash.

He was eyeing the parking lot through a window from his seat inside Berkeley's Northbrae Community Church, where Congregation Netivot Shalom was holding a Shabbat service. Its usual meeting place, the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, was holding an auction.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman was reading from the weekly Torah portion, Behar-Behukotai. But an uneasy Schnur went to check out the scene in the parking lot.

As a member of the Conservative congregation's board of directors, it was his job to ensure everyone's safety.

"As I'm walking to the parking lot," Schnur related, "I smell gasoline."

He could see the guy had doused not only his own vehicle, but the two on either side of it.

"I yelled at him, `What are you doing?'

"`F— you,'" the man replied, "`get out of here, leave me alone.'

"He lights a match," Schnur continued. "I run at him. I see he's unarmed, because he's wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and I push him out of the way. He runs away, but there's a lighted match on a car."

Schnur put out the flame, then heard yelling from a room where the children were holding their Shabbat service.

"Call 911," he recalled shouting as he ran inside the church.

Schnur rushed into the children's room and saw about two dozen children crouched under tables shielded by teachers Alison Goldstein and Mike Feinberg.

The intruder had run through their room, then bolted upstairs and began banging on a door. Hearing the commotion, teachers Rachel Coben and Nedia Glover hid with two preschoolers, an 8-year-old girl, plus a mother and baby.

By then, four congregants had joined Schnur in pursuit of the man.

Then, "he started breaking windows," Schnur recalled.

Meanwhile, worried the trespasser might try tossing lighted matches out the upstairs windows onto the gasoline-soaked cars below, Schnur hurried back outside to hose down the cars with water.

By that time, Berkeley firefighters and police had arrived.

"He's not armed," Schnur told them. "He's just angry."

While Schnur chased the intruder, his wife helped evacuate the church.

Denise Moyer-Schnur, who had seen her husband and the man scuffle in the parking lot, ran to get their 8-year-old daughter, who was attending the children's service.

First making sure that teachers took the children from the service outside, including her 5-1/2-year-old son, Moyer-Schnur returned to the social hall, where the Torah reading was going on.

"Everybody get out," she announced. "Get out right now."

The congregants calmly left the building, all 125 of them, helping each other when necessary, she said, "nobody panicked."

Neighbors in the residential area around 941 The Alameda offered snacks, telephones and bathrooms.

"Someone told us, `I'm so glad you're OK,'" she said.

Inside the church, the intruder was confronted by the church's minister, the Rev. David Sugarbaker, who had been working in his office at the time. Sugarbaker said the man threw a metal chair at him, but the minister was not hurt.

When Berkeley police arrived, Sgt. John Daubenspeck and Officer John Lewis found the assailant on the second floor landing.

"He immediately starts walking at a rapid pace toward them," said Berkeley Deputy Police Chief Roy Meisner. The police sprayed the man with pepper spray, but he kept moving toward them, the deputy chief said. The man then smashed his hand in a window he had already shattered.

"They spray him a second time, he charges again, saying, `Shoot me, shoot me,'" Meisner said.

The police sprayed the man yet a third time, at which point Meisner said the man lay down on the floor, crying.

He was identified as Seth Swanson, 29, of San Francisco, whose father had reported him missing earlier.

Police arrested Swanson on charges of assault with a deadly weapon (for throwing the chair at Sugarbaker), felony malicious mischief and attempted arson.

The Berkeley District Attorney's office said Swanson was being held in the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, prior to a May 30 court date when he will enter a plea to charges of four counts of arson and one count of vandalism.

Police said Swanson's alleged attack did not appear to be anti-Semitic in nature. Some congregants had feared it may have been, given that it occurred the same week that an Arab group threatened Jewish executives.

In fact, police, said, Swanson apparently was looking for a former counselor who worked at the church.

"It certainly doesn't have anything to do with either religion," Meisner said.

"He was looking for a counselor he hadn't seen in 11 years."

The counselor, Daniel Lesny, had worked at the church with a group called Center for Creative Growth, which has since moved to Albany. Meisner said the group reported a threatening message from Swanson on its answering machine a few days prior to the episode at Northbrae.

Meanwhile, the congregation is planning on contributing to the Northbrae Community Church to help pay for the estimated $15,000 in damage from the attack.

Police said Swanson allegedly broke dozens of windows, several chandeliers and chairs.

Netivot Shalom uses the church at High Holy Days because it holds a few hundred more people than BRJCC. Kelman said he's concerned about going back into the building now.

"We still have a deep concern for the delayed reaction of individuals in the congregation," he said, "particularly children and some of the staff."

Moyer-Schnur later told her children Swanson was out of control and wanted to hurt property, not people.

His wrath "was not directed at us," added her husband. "We were in the wrong place at the wrong time."