Authorities say church ushers stopped 37-year-old Marc Lamparello around 8 p.m. and notified nearby officers with the NYPD Critical Response Command, who took him into custody.
Lamparello, who is from Hasbrouck Heights but has been staying at a New York City hotel, allegedly drove to St. Patrick's, parked in front of Saks, and took two gas cans and lighter fluid from the car into the cathedral, where he was stopped.
"A guy was standing there with two gallons of gas, and somebody was talking to him," a taxi driver who witnessed the incident said. "He looked like a security guard or police officer. He said, 'I need gas for my car.' (The officer) said, 'Where's your car?' He said, "I don't know where I left my car.'"
Lamparello is charged with attempted arson, reckless endangerment and some violations of city codes after police said holes were found in his story.
"His basic story was that he was cutting through the cathedral to get to Madison Avenue, that his car had run out of gas," NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller said. "We took a look at the vehicle. It was not out of gas, and at that point, he was taken into custody and brought to the Midtown North station house."
Miller said that Lamparello is known to police, and authorities later released that he had been arrested on Monday after refusing to leave Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark.
Police say Lamparello was sitting in the cathedral for about an hour and then refused to leave when the church was closing.
When Essex County Sheriff's Officers asked him to leave, he told them he still wanted to pray. When they tried to remove him, he told them they would have to arrest him.
In that incident, Lamparello was charged with resisting arrest, trespass and disorderly conduct. Law enforcement then discovered that Lamparello had a one-way plane ticket booked for Thursday night from Newark Airport to Rome.
Several law enforcement agencies are now looking into his background and intentions. Miller stressed that there "doesn't appear to be any connection to any terrorist group or any terrorist-related intent here."
A neighbor said Lamparello lives in the basement of his parents' house and that the family is very religious. He reportedly taught at several colleges and universities, including Brooklyn College, Seton Hall University, and Lehman College, where he's listed as an adjunct lecturer and PhD candidate in the philosophy department.
"We are aware that an individual was arrested last night after an incident at St. Patrick's Cathedral," Lehman College spokesperson Sarah Ramsey said in a statement. "The individual was hired at Lehman College during this academic year and was a part-time online instructor this semester. We are taking the appropriate steps to terminate the individual's employment with the college."
The St. Patrick's incident came just two days after the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
There was a heavy police presence early Thursday morning outside the cathedral on Fifth Avenue.
"I've come to trust what we've got at St. Patrick's Cathedral, not that we can ever take it for granted," Timothy Cardinal Dolan said. "Last night proves that it works. We've got a very well trained interior security staff. We've got the constant help of the NYPD, which usually has an officer on the block for ready assistance. We've got the ready attention of the FDNY...Does that mean it's fail safe? No. But that's why we come to church to pray for God's protection."
St. Patrick's Cathedral, built in 1878, has installed a sprinkler-like system during recent renovations and its wooden roof is coated with fire retardant.
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