Texas church fires: Who's behind them?

Texas officials are investigating a recent string of church fires in the state. Amid widespread speculation on motive, investigators of past church fires warn against jumping to conclusions.

Mike Fuentes/AP/File
In this Feb. 4 photo, investigators talk in front of the burned Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point, Texas. The seventh church fire this year in east Texas destroyed the sanctuary of the church.

Authorities are desperately looking for motives to help them find the suspected arsonists behind at least eight of 11 church fires in central and east Texas since the beginning of this year.

But a chief investigator of the Alabama church burnings in 2006 has some advice for his Texas counterparts: Go slow, tune out the public din, and let the evidentiary crumbs lead the way.

“It’s like the old saying, expectation is greater than the realization,” says Alabama State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk, who was the case manager during the investigation into the burning of nine Baptist churches in Alabama in 2006. “Iinvestigators] try to keep an open mind and allow evidence to steer where we go and what we look at … whereas the public tends to sensationalize what they perceive to be motive.”

In the Alabama case, because several of the churches belonged to black congregations – a sensitive issue in the state, where church bombings were common during the civil rights era – it was widely assumed that white supremacists were responsible.

Instead, three white college students from the Birmingham suburbs were found to be behind the fires. Officials said the fires were a “joke” that spun out of control during their deer hunting trips. All three have nine more years left on their prison sentences.

No pattern to Texas arsons

So far, the apparent theft of nonreligious items from several of the Texas churches has given investigators from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) some clues as to motive. ATF spokesman Thomas Crowley has also told news outlets that there’s evidence that the fires were set by a group of people, not a single person.

And while the affected churches have been mostly in small towns, not all the fires were in out-of-the-way locales, Mr. Crowley said. (See map of suspicious fires here.)

The arsonists have no set pattern, targeting a variety of different congregations, including Methodist, Baptist, Christian Scientist, and nondenominational churches.

"[I] would characterize the mood of our people as perplexed," Randy Daniels, mayor of Athens, Texas, a town of about 12,000 that has seen three of the church fires, told CNN. “Most people consider it just incomprehensible and unconscionable that somebody could and would be doing this."

“Some blame Muslims for the east Texas church fires. Some blame Palin-hating liberals,” writes The Dallas Morning News’ Brooks Egerton.

Church arson motives vary widely

But perpetrators of church arson, when finally apprehended, often don’t fit the expected profiles, as shown by more than 1,000 church arson investigations conducted nationally since 1996, when the National Church Arson Task Force was established.

“We’ve had situations where the motivation was covering up burglaries and theft, ... where it was acting out against people in revenge, and we’ve had cases where it had to do with the occult, and cases where people are just making poor judgments,” says Mr. Paulk, the Alabama fire marshal.

Racism, religious hatred, insurance fraud, and thrill-seeking are less common reasons for church arson, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Whatever the motive, church burnings affect Americans deeply. “Our nation was built around religious freedom and any time someone damages a building relating to the faith of any group it tears at the fabric of our society,” says Paulk.


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