Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church
Butch Dill  /  AP
Investigators work Tuesday at the scene of a fire at the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee, Ala.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/7/2006 5:11:30 PM ET 2006-02-07T22:11:30

Authorities told NBC News on Tuesday that there appeared to be a link between suspected arson fires at five rural Baptist churches near Birmingham, Ala., last week and fires that damaged four more Baptist churches in western Alabama overnight.

“Clearly and obviously this is an arson fire,” a federal agent told NBC, referring to one of the fires overnight.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the fires were still being investigated.

Authorities cited similarities among the nine blazes: All occurred early in the morning, the fires were at or near the altars of the churches and all of the churches were in remote locations.

The four fires reported Tuesday were in three sparsely populated counties in west Alabama. Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle were damaged, Ingram said. The other two, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee and Galilee Baptist in Panola, were destroyed.

While some have speculated on a possible racial component to the fires, because one of the churches burned in last week's fires and the four churches burned overnight this week were mostly frequented by African Americans, Jim Cavanaugh, special agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, told NBC that he did not think the latest burnings were racially motivated.

On main roads
One notable difference from last week's fires is that at least two of the churches in the latest fires are on a main road; investigators said this was possibly an effort to throw off investigators.

Another difference is that two of the churches burned this week were brick buildings; their exteriors were solid, but the interiors sustained more serious damage.

Authorities said they were seeking two men, possibly in a dark SUV.

The FBI said it is looking into whether the Bibb County fires last week were civil rights violations under laws covering attacks on religious property. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered.

Earlier, Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said it was too soon to say if there was any link between the sets of blazes. “Obviously we’re going to investigate these as suspected arsons,” Ingram said.

In Boligee, firefighters sprayed down the smoldering rubble at Morning Star Baptist Church, where all that remained of the wood-frame building were the front steps and handrail. The church had burned to its concrete foundation.

‘It's just sickness’
Johnny Archibald, a church member who lives nearby, said he was alerted to the fire by a school bus driver and arrived about 6:45 a.m., just as smoke was pouring out of windows and flames were visible near the pulpit. He said it seemed as if the front door had been kicked in.

He said he immediately thought of last week’s church fires.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just sickness,” he said.

The string of fires early Friday in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham, destroyed three churches and damaged two others.

In the past five years, Alabama has had 59 church fires, 19 of those ruled arsons, Ingram said.

Agents investigating the five Bibb County fires said Tuesday that they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle in connection with the blazes.

Members of Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield told The Associated Press in interviews that they saw a dark Nissan Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to put out a fire shortly after 4 a.m. Friday.

Investigators believe all five Bibb County fires were linked, Ingram said. He said they are pursuing several leads, but “the leads haven’t led us to a specific suspect or a motive.”

The state fire marshal’s office said Tuesday that it had ruled another church fire, Thursday afternoon in rural Chilton County, an accident.

Previous arson cases
Alabama is no stranger to seemingly random attacks on churches. An Indiana man who called himself a missionary of Lucifer pleaded guilty to setting fires at 26 churches in eight states, including Alabama, over a five-year period that ended in 1999.

Jay Scott Ballinger pleaded guilty in April 2001 to setting church fires in Alabama, California, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee from December 1998 through January 1999, according to the Justice Department. He was sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld by an appellate court last year.

The Associated Press and NBC contributed to this report.

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