Arson arrests yield relief, and shock
Congregants of nine burned churches now feel able to rebuild, but remain puzzled by the suspects' motivations.
ATLANTA — For residents in Alabama, first came relief. Then came the shock.
The relief was that police caught the three suspects who torched nine Baptist churches in the state in February, and that they were not motivated by religious or racial hatred.
The shock was that police say that the three were white Methodist college students from well-to-do families who set the fires on a lark, not knowing perhaps the significance of what it means to burn a church in the South.
That the young men were arrested is a testament to work by state and federal arson detectives, who nearly filled a Tuscaloosa warehouse with scraps of litter and other potential evidence from the crime scenes.
Federal and state law enforcement working together plays a major role in the resolution of church arson cases, the majority of which quickly go as cold as the ashes left behind, some experts say.
"I would hope that the federal government will keep this collaborative law enforcement going with every church that burns, not just the clusters that burn in Alabama," says Rev. Terrance Mackey Sr., president of the National Coalition for Burned Churches in Greeleyville, S.C.
If national averages are any indication, the three popular college students could have gotten away: More than 80 percent of some 200 to 300 church arson cases a year go unsolved - the lowest rate of any felony, according to the Center for Arson Research in Philadelphia.
"There are many times when you have investigators who know they have an arson fire, they can see infrared pour patterns left in the rubble, but it doesn't lead them to anyone," says Dian Williams, director of the Center for Arson Research.
As they were escorted to court on Wednesday, the pale young men with scruffy haircuts and jeans were a far cry from the vengeful marauder many residents pictured. Still, each faces up to 20 years in prison.
"People here in Bibb County are, more than anything, relieved. They worried that if they rebuilt the churches would be burned down again," says Bibb County Administrator Mark Tyner.
What began as a deer hunting trip among three friends - Benjamin Moseley, 19, Russell DeBusk Jr., 19, and Matthew Cloyd, 20 - turned into a "joke," as they peeled down the road in Bibb County in Mr. Cloyd's mother's SUV. After torching three churches, they saw fire trucks and continued on a quest one called "too spontaneous," investigators say.
Four of the five churches first burned were white. Then, two of the men, in an apparent attempt to confuse the investigation, torched four black Baptist churches in Pickens, Sumter, and Greene Counties a few days later.
The appearance Wednesday of the young men, one a former high school class president, another the son of a prominent rural doctor, two from a Methodist- affiliated school, seemed out of place to many in a state with a bitter history of church burnings and bombings.
"Burning a church in Alabama means a lot of things it doesn't mean in other states, which makes this in many ways inexplicable to many Alabamians," says Bob Sigler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama.
Even early on, some profilers suspected the work of young thrillseekers who got a rush out of stirring interest throughout the nation.
"With thrillseekers you often have one leader with the idea and then the acolytes who follow along, and each fire becomes more daring, much more interesting, especially when they feel like they're under close scrutiny," says Dr. Williams.
David Pollick, president of Birmingham-Southern College, where two of the suspects attend school, denounced a "culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in ... these young men." Mr. Pollick said the school will help the churches rebuild.
School officials are no doubt aware of the implications of Methodist boys torching Baptist churches, experts say. In many parts of the South in the 18th century, Baptists viewed Methodists as poachers and interlopers. The two denominations have also had at one time a long quarrel over the details of baptism.
Nearly 250 federal, state, and local police worked around the clock on the case. In the end, it came down to "good old-fashioned police work," Sigler says.
Investigators matched a tire print found at six of the scenes to about 200 dark SUVs that had bought such tires in Alabama. They eventually tracked them down to a tire shop in Pelham that installed the tires on a Toyota 4Runner Cloyd's mother owned.