Investigators Say Alabama Church Fires `All Linked’

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. _ Drawing 50 more federal agents to a force already 150 strong, authorities have widened their investigation of a string of Alabama church fires after two rural black churches were destroyed and two others damaged Tuesday (Feb. 7).

Teams of federal, state and county officers are trying to solve a disturbing puzzle: Who is targeting rural churches rich in history, some dating to Reconstruction?

Five churches were set on fire in Bibb County last week.

“It looks like they’re all linked,” Jim Cavanaugh, regional director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Tuesday evening. “We’ve got copycat on the radar, but we don’t think that’s what this is.”

The latest fires were set along a 25-mile stretch of both well-traveled and isolated roads. One fire was discovered early Tuesday at Dancy Baptist Church, south of Aliceville in Pickens County. Within two hours, three more were found burning: Spring Valley Baptist Church near Gainesville in Sumter County; Morning Star Baptist Church north of Boligee in Greene County; and Galilee Baptist Church near Panola, also in Sumter County.

Tuesday evening, authorities officially classified the fires at Dancy and Spring Valley as arsons.

“The devil never sleeps,” Sumter County Chief Deputy Eddie Larkin said.

As in Bibb County, most if not all of Tuesday’s fires appeared to have been set in or near the pulpit areas, “the heart of the church,” Cavanaugh said. In some churches, side doors had been kicked in to get inside.

“It cuts like a knife, to tell you the truth,” said Willie Speights, a minister at Galilee Baptist Church. “There’s got to be somebody with nothing in their heart but hatred.”

Cavanaugh said the multiple origins of fire inside the churches back up witness reports of more than one arsonist. Authorities are continuing to field numerous reports of two white males in a dark SUV, possibly a Nissan Pathfinder, seen in the areas of the fires.

Discussing the perpetrators, Cavanaugh said: “There’s two to a few feeding off of each other. Their actual motives we may not know until we actually catch them. It’s almost like they’re in a frenzy, going from church to church.”

State officials Tuesday evening asked all West Alabama counties to heighten patrols, and Cavanaugh encouraged residents to take notice of anything unusual.

“These people were out all night last night, they were out all night Thursday night,” he said. “There’s indication they were close in when the fires were burning. If they came home, they might have smelled of smoke. They could have burns on their hands. They could have been absent from work or school.”

While authorities continued their hunt, county lawmen and members of the targeted congregations tried to come to grips with the attacks.

At 5:05 a.m., a Brink’s security employee called Dancy First Baptist deacon J.D. Simmons to report a break-in at the church. By the time deputies and firefighters arrived, smoke and fire filled the building.

The Rev. Walter Hawkins, Dancy pastor, said the church is believed to have been built by former slaves during Reconstruction. It was rebuilt in 1999, and a new frame metal roof was installed after it was damaged last summer by Hurricane Katrina.

The marquee out front reads, “The church where everybody is somebody.”

“We’re just a loving, close-knit family,” Hawkins said. “It’s shocking. It’s just shocking. But we still have to love regardless of what people do.”

At Morning Star north of Boligee, white smoke still billowed from the charred ruins hours after the fire was discovered. The only things left standing were a handrail and steps leading to where the sanctuary had once been. The wood-frame church was established in 1912 and had 25 to 30 members.

Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac said his department had beefed up patrols after the Bibb County fires. One of his deputies checked on the church around 2:30 a.m. and nothing was amiss. At 6:41 a.m., it was a different story.

“We’ve had this situation before in Greene County,” the sheriff said. Three church fires, still unsolved, happened in the county about 10 years ago. “It makes your heart pump when you think these things are back happening again.”

Eight miles northwest and eight minutes later, at 6:49 a.m., another church was discovered burning, damaged but not destroyed. Spring Valley Baptist Church on Alabama Highway 116 was established in 1876. It was rebuilt in 1998, made from brick and wood. Larkin said a passerby reported the fire.

At Galilee Baptist Church in Sumter County’s Panola community, the largely wood-framed church was leveled. A congregation of 50 members had plans to someday build a bigger, better church. Among the irreplaceable items lost in the fire were commemorative plaques affixed to the pews to honor deceased parents of church members.

“I hope the devil is going to prepare a place for whoever burned our church down,” Speights said.

MO/JL END RNS

(Carol Robinson and Tom Gordon write for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.)

Editors: To obtain photos of the burned churches, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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