You know you’re in rural Alabama when the road sign says “Pavement Ends.” On a foggy Thursday night/Friday morning—February 2/3 -- traveling this same kind of road, arsonists set fire to five small, rural Baptist churches. The churches were torched in rapid succession, “as fast as they could drive from one location to the next,” according to a deputy sheriff involved in the arson investigation. An arson task force composed of over 100 federal, state, and local law enforcement agents is now sifting through the remains of the fires, and through the mounds of information and evidence quickly being developed in this case, all in an attempt to identify the fire setter(s).
Arson is a frequent crime in the United States. In a recent year 75,000 incidents of arson were reported, of which only 16% were cleared or solved by investigation. Investigating arson is difficult. Most if not all evidence of the crime is consumed in the fire itself. Arson investigators and others have developed psychological profiles for those who set fires. These profiles are based on known information about identified arsonists. But most arsonists are never identified, so there is much about the crime of arson and those who commit it that we don’t know. We do know that approximately 50% of the known arsonists are under the age of 18.
Determination of motive is key to any criminal investigation. In the case of arson, motive may include anger, revenge, or hate. In such cases the criminal uses fire instead of physical assault to attack his victim. Other motives include arson for profit. For instance, the fire setter derives some benefit from the arson, perhaps an insurance payment or some other personal or financial reward. Arson is also committed to conceal another crime, as was the case on New Year’s Day in Richmond, Virginia, when a family of four was brutally murdered. A fire was set by the killer(s) in an attempt to destroy evidence of the mass murder. Arson can be committed as a form of political protest, such as the burning of abortion clinics by radical anti-abortion groups or perhaps cross burnings done as a form of racial discrimination. Lastly there is the motive of vandalism or thrill seeking. This is a stupid, meaningless act of juvenile delinquency, perhaps done out of sheer boredom. I’ll leave it up to the clinical psychologists to discuss the assorted psychological factors that contribute to these various motives.
I spoke to the pastor of one of the first churches burned on Thursday night. His small Baptist church, one that had been in existence for almost 200 years, has an average Sunday morning congregation of about 50, typical of many of the long established Baptist churches in that area, almost 40 in Bibb County alone. Neither the pastor nor his church had received any recent threats, and he was unaware of any reported incidents of arson or other major incidents of vandalism in the local area. His, like all but one of the other torched churches, has a predominantly white congregation. The pastor thought the fire setter(s) may have entered through a side door of the church, but it’s still early in the investigation. It appears that all of the church fires were set within a 25-mile area. This same pastor suggested that the arsonist(s) may have moved in a kind of circular manner, traveling quickly from one fire to the next. Some of the churches were located in very rural locations, along dirt roads without any sign to indicate the location of the church. Therefore someone with a good working knowledge of the local area and the rural roads may have played a key role in these arsons.
What is known, however, is that on the night of these arsons, the local religious community quickly put the word out to all pastors of the ongoing fire setting. According to one local investigator, a pastor drove quickly to his church as soon as he received the warning and arrived in time to see a car peeling out of the church parking lot. This witness may be able to describe the car he saw, perhaps to include the car’s license plate number, something that could obviously help to make quick work of this investigation.
From the investigative side of this case, federal agents, local officers, and criminal and geographic profilers will be looking for the epicenter of the crime spree. They will investigate whether these crimes were conducted along some continuing route, perhaps a line or a semi-circle or even a circle. They want to determine where the arsonist(s) might live or work or have otherwise been going to or coming from the night of the fires. In one or more of the churches, computers, sound equipment and cash set out in the open went untouched. Whether the arsons, therefore, were set to cover multiple burglaries has yet to be determined. Were these hate crimes; crimes committed against the religious community, and if so, why? Could one church have been the primary target, with the other churches set ablaze simply to conceal the “real” target that evening? Parishioners of the local churches are overwhelmed by the crimes. “Who,” said one, “could possibly burn the house of God?” That, of course, is the challenge for investigators.
It’s been reported that physical evidence has been found at one or more of the crime scenes, perhaps to include tire tracks. Investigators may be able to identify the make of tire and perhaps even the make of car the tire came from. Anomalies in tire tracks, like shoe prints and fingerprints, can be forensically identified and thereafter linked to the arsonist(s). We know that two churches were spared the total ravage of the smoke and fire that night. Therefore the linking physical evidence needed by investigators may already have been found at those two churches, instead of lost in the charred remains of the three less fortunate houses of worship that were burned to the ground.
One person on scene told me that a cow in a field near one of the burnt out churches was believed to have been shot and killed the same night the churches were set ablaze. If this was done by the arsonist(s), investigators need to consider how this act may relate to the arsons, and what it might suggest concerning the individual(s) who committed these crimes. Some believe that all the fires were set on or near the communion table in each church. The crime scene at one of the churches, one of those saved before the fire was able to spread, seems to bear this fact out. The glass on the communion table was cracked by the heat of the fire and the table itself charred, but this church, and the evidence of the crime, was spared. Were the attacks, therefore, specifically directed against what the communion tables may have represented, or was this simply the “logical” location in each church to start the fire? Worship services at that church were conducted around the blackened communion table on Sunday morning. The congregations of other churches that lost their places of worship to arson met in other churches, local halls, or available civic locations, singing praises and thanks using borrowed hymnals. The only church with a predominantly African American congregation to be burned that night was just 300 yards away from the church where one of the fires was found and extinguished. If four of the five targets were predominantly white churches, was there any element of racism in these arsons? More questions for the investigators to answer.
Whether these were crimes of adolescent boredom—joyriding teenagers with nothing to do who decided to see how many churches they could burn in how short a period of time, or fires set to cover simple burglaries, or even hate crimes directed against the local religious community, the sheer number of investigators assigned to this case will in all likelihood quickly lead to the fire setters themselves. Teenagers, especially if more than one is involved, may talk, perhaps brag to others about what they did. It is, after all, the aftermath of the arson, seeing the results of their “handiwork,” that gives many arsonists the psychological reward or satisfaction they seek. Other suspects will likely be identified by the physical evidence found at the crime scenes and by the combined efforts of investigators and local residents in bringing these criminals to justice.
The bottom line is that no matter who committed these arsons, and no matter their twisted motive for doing so, these are crimes that reflect on our country. It makes no difference whether the attack was against a mosque, a synagogue or a centuries old church, and no matter whether the congregations were black or white, these arsons are a crime against all citizens. They must be solved. A reward of $10,000 has already been offered to anyone who provides information that helps identify the fire setters. Let’s hope that a combination of good investigative techniques, and a few loose lips, will quickly lead to the solution of these crimes of hate, revenge, bigotry, or just plain stupidity.