Students say church arsons meant as ‘a joke’

3rd collegian also arrested in Alabama case

NBC News and news services
Updated: 1:35 p.m. ET March 8, 2006
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Two college students arrested Wednesday in a string of nine rural Alabama church arsons told authorities that the first fires were set as “a joke” and later blazes were intended as a diversion, federal agents said.

A third college student was arrested later Wednesday in the serial arsons, according to WVTM-TV of Birmingham.

Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk Jr., both students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared in federal court Wednesday and were ordered held on church arson charges pending a hearing Friday.

Matthew Lee Cloyd, reportedly a student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, was arrested midday, the WVTM reported. 

An ATF affidavit said Moseley told agents on Wednesday that he, Cloyd and Debusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s Toyota sport utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand,” according to the affidavit.

Moseley also told agents the four church fires in west Alabama were set “as a diversion to throw investigators off,” an attempt that “obviously did not work,” the affidavit said.

Arson investigators scheduled an afternoon news conference at the Tuscaloosa airport to discuss the arrests.

The first two suspects were arrested Tuesday night, NBC’s Pete Williams reported.

WVTM-TV, citing the state fire marshal’s office, said the two are students at Birmingham Southern College and were arrested at a college dorm.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives made the Alabama church arson case a top priority as scores of agents joined state and local law officers in the probe.

Authorities analyzed tire tracks and traced the purchase of the tires to Cloyd.

‘We are relieved’
The pastor at one of the destroyed churches said he was told of the arrests by investigators.

“We are relieved. We were fearful while they were on the loose because we did not know their agenda,” said Jim Parker, pastor of the Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, which was burned to the ground.

Ten Baptist churches in rural parts of the state were burned by arsonists last month. Nine of the fires — five on Feb. 3 in Bibb County and four on Feb. 7 in west Alabama — have been linked. Another church fire on Feb. 11 in Lamar County has been ruled arson, but investigators have not determined if it is connected to the others.

The ATF has scheduled a mid-day press conference to discuss the case.

No racial pattern
There was no racial pattern — five of the churches had white congregations and five black. All were Baptist, the dominant faith in the region, and mostly in isolated country settings.

A federal source said the apparent motive was that the three students just liked to set and watch fires.

Five of the churches were destroyed and four were damaged, including one in which congregants, alerted during the night that churches were afire, arrived just as the apparent arsonists were leaving. That fire, quickly put out, had been set in the sanctuary near the altar — a pattern in the other church arsons in Bibb County and west Alabama.

The Associated Press, NBC News, and Reuters contributed to this report.

Posted by loni on 03/08 at 02:15 PM in Blogging

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