BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Three college students, including two aspiring actors known around campus as pranksters, were arrested Wednesday in a string of nine church fires across Alabama.
Federal agents said the defendants claimed the first few fires were set as “a joke” and the others were started to throw investigators off the track.
Gov. Bob Riley said the church arsons did not appear to be “any type of conspiracy against organized religion” or the Baptist faith. With the arrests, he said, “the faith-based community can rest a little easier.”
Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared in federal court and were ordered held on church arson charges pending a hearing Friday.
Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was also arrested.
Nine churches torched
The fires broke out at five Baptist churches in Bibb County south of Birmingham on Feb. 3 and four Baptist churches in west Alabama on Feb. 7. The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency had made the arsons its top priority, with scores of federal agents joining state and local officers.
“While all three are entitled to have their day in court, we are very hopeful that this is the end to the fear that has been rampant in West Alabama,” said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.
An affidavit said Moseley told agents on Wednesday that he, Cloyd and Debusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s Toyota sport utility vehicle 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.
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.
Authorities analyzed tire tracks and traced the purchase of the tires to Cloyd.
Investigators found tracks at one fire from a BF Goodrich all-terrain tire, according to NBC’s Williams. Provided with a description of a Toyota Forerunner SUV from witnesses at a few of the fires, federal agents checked tire dealers for records of purchases for tires on that kind of vehicle, and came up with Cloyd’s mother.
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.
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.
NBC News, The Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report.