Clues found in Ala. church fires

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GREENE COUNTY, Ala. -- In a natural cathedral formed by looming pines, Deacon Charles Spencer studied the ashes of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church and vowed to protect his own place of worship 10 miles away.

"We have six churches within eight miles of our church in Union, and me and my deacons have been watching in shifts every night," Spencer said Thursday.

Amid the piney woods, swamplands and cotton fields of rural Alabama stand hundreds of remote "family chapels" of varied denominations, some 100 years old or more. Investigators say someone has gone to considerable effort during the past two weeks to target nine of them - all isolated Baptist churches - and set them ablaze.

Arsonists first struck before dawn Feb. 3 in Bibb County, south of Birmingham, setting fire to five churches - four with predominantly white congregations and the other black. Tuesday, they struck again, setting ablaze four churches, three with black congregations, in three rural counties in western Alabama.

The fires have left those who worship in Alabama's rural churches fearful and on the alert. "It's a scary time; it really is," said Gary Farley, missions director for the Southern Baptist churches in Pickens County, where a church was burned Tuesday.

There are at least 150 churches for 20,000 residents in his county alone, Farley said. Many older churches were built close to the rural homes of people who had to walk to them.

Today, those churches often stand alone, miles from towns. They are dear to those whose families have held baptisms, marriages, funerals and other momentous events in them for generations.

"Country people love their churches as part of their lives," Farley said. "And now they are feeling vulnerable."

In several cases, the arsonists have passed up more-accessible sites of Methodist and other denominations of churches before kicking in the Baptists' doors, dousing their pulpits and pews with accelerants and setting them afire.

"These people have got to be rounded up immediately, and this has got to stop. We don't allow churches to be burned in America," said the Rev. Bobby Welch of Daytona Beach, Southern Baptist Convention president, who has visited all of the burned-church sites "to tell them we are there for them."

Only four of the churches hit are part of his predominantly white organization, but Welch said emergency cash and additional support have been offered to all that were burned. Two of the destroyed churches already have $65,000 "mobile sanctuaries" on their sites.

"These guys burned down buildings, but they didn't burn down churches, because the people are the churches," Welch said. "This tiny, silver-haired woman at one burned church told me, 'We are not going to let the devil whip us.'"

Criminal profilers have joined hundreds of task force investigators from the FBI, and state and local law enforcement. They are working out of a bustling operations center at the Tuscaloosa airport. Their bright-colored crime-scene gloves now litter the scattered church sites surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape.

In the late 1990s, three black churches near Boligee in Greene County were among those burned in a series of church arsons across the Southeast. Those fires have never been solved, but they provided experience to the investigators working these cases, officials said.

On Friday, investigators said they had found a handprint, possibly that of an arsonist, on the smoke-stained metal door of Dancy First Baptist Church. A newer brick structure, it was badly burned only within its interior. Tire and boot prints and other clues also have been recovered at church arson sites, officials said.

"We are continuing to work over 250 leads, but based on the locations in remote areas, we think it is someone who knows the area well," said Eric Kehn, a spokesman with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is offering a $10,000 reward.

There have been reported sightings of a dark sport utility vehicle with two white passengers near some of the Bibb County churches before the fires. Though the fires are being investigated as a hate crime, theories of motive run the gamut, from thrill-seekers to devil-worshipers.

Some church members here voiced suspicions that the blazes could be linked to the Jan. 30 death and subsequent tributes paid to civil-rights figure Coretta Scott King, whose late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was a Baptist minister.

But investigators and others noted that four of the nine churches burned had mostly white members. Still, many think that the culprit is trying to send an anti-religion message.

In those churches that weren't burned to the ground, investigators have determined that the fires were set directly in front of the pulpits and Communion areas.

"They kicked in a door in our other building and walked all the way through our offices and classrooms to set the fire in here," said the Rev. Glenn Harris as he led an insurance adjuster through his Spring Valley Baptist Church outside Gainesville, Ala., last week.

"I think they are mad with God, or this has something to do with hatred of religion," Harris said. "It is a misguided anger of some kind."

Thirteen miles to the northwest, the white wood-frame Galilee Baptist Church was surrounded by a cemetery dating to the 1800s. It was burned before dawn Tuesday. The night burning of this small black church is puzzling to investigators and residents because of its deep backwoods location. The Galilee church sat more than a mile outside Panola, a near-ghost town of empty buildings surrounded by swampy lowlands that feed into the Tombigbee River.

Six miles up two-lane Highway 17, the Rev. Walter Hawkins was finding a Christian lesson in the fire that destroyed the interior of his 100-member Dancy First Baptist Church.

"The lesson is to continue to love and forgive despite those who have this hatred in their hearts," said the minister.

In case some did not hear him, Hawkins posted similar sentiments on his church signboard facing the highway.

"Forgive them for they know not what they do," it read.

Wes Smith writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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