Sam Hemingway, Burlington Free Press
An unemployed 32-year-old immigrant from Belarus is facing arson and burglary charges in connection with a fire that ravaged the historic steeple at the College Street Congregational Church early Wednesday morning.
Aliaksandr Bychkou, 32, of Burlington, pleaded not guilty during a late afternoon arraignment before Judge Brian Grearson at Vermont Superior Court and was ordered held for lack of $25,000 bail.
Grearson also ordered that Bychkou undergo a mental health evaluation, based on a police affidavit that said Bychkou told police after he was found in the church as the fire was burning that "voices told me to come here" and look for treasure in the bell tower.
"We are going to order a competency and insanity evaluation under the circumstances that have been identified in this case," Grearson said.
Bychkou, wearing a black shirt and pants, said little during the brief hearing. As he was being led away in shackles, he and his wife and brother had a brief exchange in a foreign language. Afterward, his wife could be seen crying as she left the courtroom, carrying the couple's infant child.
The wife and brother, who did not identify themselves by name, declined comment on the charges facing Bychkou. Asked if they had anything to say to Burlingtonians upset about the steeple fire, the brother said, "We're upset too."
According to an affidavit filed with the court, Burlington police were called at 5:34 a.m. by a church custodian who said someone had broken into the church.
Shortly after police arrived, they found Bychkou in the church basement carrying a black duffel bag and wearing work gloves. Police also noticed a "strong chemical odor" emanating from Bychkou, the affidavit said. The duffel bag was found to contain a metal tube, long-stemmed matches and a flashlight.
Asked if he started a fire, Bychkou answered "I don't know what I lit on fire."
Bychkou, after being transported to Burlington Police Department headquarters, told police he had been suffering panic attacks recently and had be able to sleep only 3-5 hours a night for the past week, and not at all on Tuesday night.