Riddles amid the ashes Arson: Investigators of church fires in South Carolina say racism is only one motive fueling the rash of blazes.

June 30, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,FBI, National Fire Protection Association, S.C. Law Enforcement Division/EMILY HOLMES: SUN STAFFSUN STAFF

DIXIANA, S.C. SUN STAFF WRITER JAMES BOCK CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — DIXIANA, S.C. -- Robert Glenn Emerson, a 17-year-old high school dropout, reclined in a beat-up Lazyboy, kept his eyes on a talk show and admitted in a monotone that he's caused some trouble in his life. Once police caught him shoplifting cigarettes. Another time they warned him to stop beating up his girlfriend.

In the tumble-down trailer park where he lives, Emerson said a little trouble is the only thing that makes life exciting. But his hazel eyes moved off the television when asked about charges that he burned St. John's Baptist Church.

"That's flat wrong," said Emerson, a tall, skinny boy whose mouth looks lopsided when he speaks because of teeth missing from one side. "I would never do something like that. I don't have any problems with blacks."

As law enforcement officials across the South struggle for answers to explain why more than 60 black churches have been burned in the last year and a half, they find themselves taking into custody aimless teen-agers like Emerson, who are looking for kicks. Nationally, very few arrests have been made of people who are members of white supremacy groups, making it harder for police to predict where and when the arson attacks will occur.

"The pattern to these crimes is that there is no pattern," said Robert Stewart, chief of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). "There are a few cases where we can say definitively that race is the motive. But in most cases, it's not so clear-cut."

In South Carolina -- a mostly rural state that in 1990 had no cities with more than 100,000 people -- almost as many white churches have been attacked as black ones. Three white churches were struck by arsonists this year, and five black churches have been burned.

But an examination of the burnings at black and white churches in South Carolina is like comparing apples and oranges. White churches have suffered minimal damage, and members have resumed normal worship services.

Meanwhile, black congregations have seen buildings devastated by fire. They are divided about whether to move their churches out of rural communities where their families have lived for generations.

"We're heartbroken," said the Rev. Aiken R. Ruth of Barnwell, S.C., of the April arson attack on his Rosemary Baptist Church. "People are used to coming here and feeling as safe and comfortable as they do in their own homes. Now we can't feel that way here."

Compared to other states, arson hasn't been much of a problem in South Carolina. The state arson rate in 1994 was less than half the national average, according to the most recent records available from the FBI.

That makes the high number of black churches burned in South Carolina more unusual. Of the 65 black churches burned across the South since 1995, 12 were located in South Carolina.

State law enforcement officials have arrested 11 people in connection with the burnings. Eight of the people arrested are under the age of 18.

NB Emerson, free from jail on $10,000 bail, is a typical example.

'They all hate me'

Police say there appear to be many forces that drove Emerson, his 19-year-old brother, Roger, and a friend named James Brenner, 17, to burn down St. John's Baptist Church last year. They believe that the boys burned down the church more out of boredom than deep-seated racism.

But local law enforcement officials have forwarded the case to federal civil rights investigators for review.

St. John's, built by slaves in 1858, was completely destroyed in the attack. All that remains is the frame of the front door.

"I know that those boys set out to burn that church down and that's what they did," said Sheriff James R. Metts of Lexington County.

"But exactly why they did it, I don't know."

In his first interview since he was released from jail, Emerson denied that he helped burn down St. John's.

The son of a carpenter and a school bus driver, he grew up without much money.

Wearing baggy denim jeans that droop off his waist and a baseball hat with the brim to the side of his head, Emerson fidgets as he talks. He explains that he may not have much of an education, but his family was in church most Sundays.

There, he says, he learned respect for the house of the Lord and for all people, no matter the color of their skin.

That is why, he said, he feels contempt for the Klan.

"They have meetings all the time in the woods back there," he said, pointing out the window. "But I don't listen to anything they say. Once they was having a rally and I ran over to them and tore up their signs."

He added, "Fact is, they all hate me because I have more black friends than white."

With that, his mother, a short, pale woman with matted red hair, rushed to the back of the house and returned with several school portraits of black teen-agers.

"These are all his friends," said Mary Emerson. "You can ask any one of them, and they'll tell you my kids ain't racist."

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