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Suspects Say Alabama Church Fires Began as Prank

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The series of church fires in Alabama last month appear to be a prank and not a conspiracy or a hate crime. That was the word yesterday from law enforcement officials who announced they had arrested three college students, as suspects in the arson case.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

The string of church burnings began with five churches in Bibb County, Alabama on February 3rd, and spread to four more churches in the rural western part of the state just days later. Scores of federal, state and local law enforcement officials responded. ATF Special Agent in Charge James Cavanaugh said agents searched through about 1000 leads, 500 vehicles and 1300 people in their database, in an effort to find the suspects.

Mr. JAMES CAVANAUGH (ATF, Special Agent in Charge): We slogged through these leads without any real break. We didn't have a tip, anybody telling us who did it. So we just pushed, and pushed, and pushed, until we could make the break.

LOHR: Two men were arrested early yesterday; Benjamin Moseley and Russell DeBusk are both 19-year-old theater majors at Birmingham Southern College, a Methodist liberal arts school. Matthew Cloyd, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, was arrested later in the day. Cloyd owned the kind of vehicle authorities were looking for all along, a green Toyota Forerunner. Tire tracks at six of the nine churches helped lead agents to the suspects.

According to court papers, Cloyd told a witness he and Moseley set a church on fire as a joke that had gotten out of hand.

Mr. JOHNNY ISAAC (Sheriff, Greene County, Alabama): When they called me at 1:30 this morning and said that they had two in custody, then I, man, I didn't go to bed.

LOHR: Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac was one of several Alabama sheriffs who saw a church burn during the second wave of fires on February 7th. According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, one of the suspects, Moseley, told agents that the men started the fires in the other counties as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail. Moseley admitted that the diversion, obviously, did not work. But Sheriff Isaac said this upsets some people even more.

Mr. ISAAC: None of us think that should have happened, you know? And to find out that it actually was a diversion, you know, that kind of puts you in a spot that, you know, you wish you had caught them sooner.

LOHR: But until the arrests were announced, church members remained on alert, many guarding their buildings waiting for the outcome of the investigation. Reverend Glen Harris is the pastor of Spring Valley Baptist Church near Gainesville, Alabama--it was damaged in one of the fires.

Reverend GLEN HARRIS (Pastor, Spring Valley Baptist Church): I was visiting a former member, and one of his daughters asked me, as we are repairing on the church now, Do you think they will come back again? so that was some level of fear, you know, even kind of underneath the community and surrounding churches. Because we really didn't know what this thing was all about--whether it was, we just didn't know. And now we have some sense of closure.

LOHR: Reverend Harris says there's a great sense of relief among church members. There's also a sense of sadness for the families of those in custody.

Rev. HARRIS: Our heart goes out for these three young men. We still feel they were misdirected. And we certainly pray that they will repent and find the same God that I serve--which is a God of love and not a God of hate.

LOHR: Although it has been heartbreaking for some to lose their churches, Rev. Harris says many outsiders have offered bricks, pews, and bibles to help them rebuild. Now, he says these communities can move forward without fear of being attacked again.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.