N.C. officials charge girl in fire at black church 3 men held in Texas

pastors meet in D.C.

June 11, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement officials charged a teen-ager with one fire and detained three men in another case, as Southern pastors and civil rights lawyers pressed Clinton administration officials yesterday to take more aggressive steps to solve a rash of arson attacks on black churches.

A 13-year-old white girl was charged yesterday with setting fire to an old wooden sanctuary on the grounds of a black church last week in Charlotte, N.C., while Texas authorities said they were holding three suspects in the burning of a black church Sunday night in Greenville, just north of Dallas.

The developments in the two arson cases came as 30 pastors were in Washington, not only to seek help, but also to complain that they and their parishioners were being unduly harassed by law enforcement officials, who they say have focused more on church members than on possible outside suspects.

The fires have terrorized communities from Texas to Virginia. A wave of fear and frustration has fallen over many towns in the South after the 32 arsons at black churches in the past 18 months. Federal investigators say they do not believe most attacks have been coordinated, and until yesterday the investigations into many had been fruitless. The investigators said they feared some more recent attacks could be copycat crimes.

The National Council of Churches announced yesterday that it had begun a campaign to raise $2 million to rebuild churches destroyed by arson.

President Clinton continued yesterday to elevate the importance of the arson investigations, denouncing the fires in a speech in San Diego, as he did in a radio address Saturday.

He has vowed to mobilize federal resources to find the arsonists, recently ordering scores of agents from the FBI and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to assist local police departments investigating the attacks in nine Southern states.

Officials said a new telephone hot line for tips about the arsons had received more than 300 telephone calls since it was installed over the weekend. The nationwide number is (888) ATF-FIRE.

Aides to Clinton said he was expected to travel this week to a destroyed church, probably either the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C., or the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.

Officials in North Carolina yesterday attributed the second fire to a 13-year-old girl who will be tried in juvenile court.

Investigators refused to provide the identify or motive of the girl, who they said was a resident of Charlotte, although one said she had confessed to setting the fire. They said they believed that she had acted alone, used material that she found in the 93-year-old white clapboard building and had not been involved in other church fires.

"Personally I feel a deep sense of sorrow for a 13-year-old child not only because she ruined a church building but that she may also have ruined her life," said Larry Hill, pastor of Matthews-Murkland.

Larry Snider, the deputy chief of police in Charlotte, said the suspect was "a very troubled 13-year-old." Other officials said there was no evidence that the fire had been motivated by racial animus.

In Greenville, about 40 miles northeast of Dallas, police officers questioned two white men and a Hispanic companion as suspects in a fire after 11 on Sunday night at the New Light House of Prayer, a Baptist church whose sanctuary and classrooms were badly damaged.

About 90 minutes after that fire, officers stopped a car that had been seen at the church earlier that evening. The three men in the car, Mark Gross, Juan Fernando Avila and Bradley Blankenship, were arrested on alcohol-related charges.

A second black church about a mile away, the Church of the Living God, broke into flames at 4 a.m. yesterday, about three hours after the three suspects were taken into custody. It was less severely damaged than the first Greenville church.

Fire Chief Robert Wood said yesterday that the two fires had been caused by "acts of local vandalism." Other authorities declined to say whether they believed attacks were race-related. City officials said the letters KKK had been spray-painted at a car wash that was burglarized early Sunday morning.

In Washington, black church leaders and civil rights lawyers concluded two days of meetings with Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and Attorney General Janet Reno.

After the meetings, the pastors and lawyers said they were generally satisfied with the federal commitment to combating arson, although some said the effort had come late, and others criticized the way they and their congregations were being treated by investigators.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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