Alabama church fires started as a `joke,' investigators say

Three Birmingham college students arrested in series of rural blazes

March 09, 2006|By RICHARD FAUSSET | RICHARD FAUSSET,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The church fires that lighted up the night skies of rural Alabama and spread fear and anxiety along its remote back roads were set by three Birmingham college students who started their spree as a joke, federal investigators said yesterday.

The arrests of the three men - the result of an extensive multi-agency investigation - were a balm for some parishioners of the nine burned churches.

But there also was bitterness and bewilderment as churchgoers learned of the alleged motives - and discovered that two of the accused were students at Birmingham-Southern College. The private liberal arts school, with a $20,000 yearly tuition, is associated with the United Methodist Church.

"You ought to be going to school to be intelligent," said Cleopatra Harris, 79, of Gainesville, Ala., the mother of the pastor at Spring Valley Baptist Church.

"I don't see why they'd think that was such a joke," said Bernice Brown, a member of the Morning Star Baptist Church near Boligee, Ala. "It wasn't funny."

Suspects Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell DeBusk Jr., 19, have been suspended and banned from the Birmingham-Southern campus, President David Pollick said. Their alleged accomplice, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, is a former Birmingham-Southern student who transferred in the fall to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

DeBusk and Moseley offered similar versions of their alleged spree in interviews with authorities yesterday morning, according to an affidavit filed by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

On the night of Feb. 2, the trio set off into the woods of Bibb County, in central Alabama, in Cloyd's Toyota 4Runner, where they hunted deer. Moseley said they set fire to two churches. When they saw firetrucks racing toward the scenes, he said, they burned three more in acts he described as "too spontaneous."

Four days later, Moseley said, he and Cloyd drove to western counties near the Mississippi line, where they burned four more churches "to throw investigators off."

The document also alleges that an unnamed witness told authorities that Cloyd had said one of the church fires was set as "a joke and it got out of hand."

The three men are being held on charges of conspiracy to maliciously damage or destroy buildings by way of fire. A second count charges them with the Feb. 2 destruction of Ashby Baptist Church in Bibb County, Ala. Each suspect could receive a minimum of five years in prison for each church burned, U.S. Attorney Alice Martin said, adding that other charges could come later.

The arrests, which were announced at a Tuscaloosa, Ala., news conference, brought an end to weeks of nervous speculation. Because all of the targeted churches were Baptist, some had wondered whether the fires were specific attacks against that Baptist faith. Others wondered if they were expressions of a more general anti-religious sentiment. In some areas, church members had begun keeping night watches over their houses of worship.

Yesterday, however, Gov. Bob Riley assured Alabamians that the attacks were an isolated case.

More than 250 investigators took part in the investigation. At the crime scenes, much of the evidence was reduced to ash. There was no clear motive, and the multicounty terrain was vast.

The team eventually pored over more than 1,000 leads, checking out 500 vehicles and 1,300 people. Thanks to eyewitness accounts, they assumed that they were looking for two young white men driving a dark sport utility vehicle.

One key clue was recovered at the scene of six of the fires: tire track impressions. Analysts concluded they were consistent with a particular brand of all-terrain tire.

On Tuesday, two federal agents paid a visit to the Cahaba Tire store in Pelham, Ala., just south of Birmingham. They asked store manager Jim Collins to see whether he had sold that type of tire to anyone lately. It was a special-order item, and Collins found a few receipts.

One of them indicated that a Kimberly Cloyd had purchased them on July 22 for a green Toyota 4Runner. According to the affidavit, Kimberly Cloyd later told investigators that the primary driver of the Toyota was her son, Matthew.

Investigators did not say yesterday how they narrowed their search to the Pelham tire shop. Troy King, Alabama's attorney general, called the effort "good old-fashioned police work."

Richard Fausset writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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