Agent: Church arsons started as student joke
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The string of church fires that spread fear through rural congregations had its roots not in religious hatred, authorities say, but in a nighttime deer hunting trip by three suburban college students with a reputation for pranks.The first fire was “a joke,” one of them allegedly told a witness, but four more Bibb County churches burned that night in quick succession. Another of the suspects allegedly told federal agents the arsons became “too spontaneous” in the rush of seeing fire trucks speed by.Four days later, after seeing the anxiety the fires caused and the seriousness with which investigators at all levels were treating the crime, two of the students traveled further west, setting fire to four more churches.Those arsons were “a diversion to throw investigators off,” Walker Johnson, a federal agent who investigated the fires, said in a sworn statement.He added that one of the three students arrested Wednesday, Benjamin Nathan Moseley, “said the diversion obviously did not work.”Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19 and theater students at Birmingham-Southern College, and Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, a friend and student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, were charged in the rash of church fires Feb. 3 and Feb. 7.The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency had made the investigation its top priority, with scores of federal agents joining state and local officers. After poring over hundreds of leads, a secret witness and tire tracks led them to the suspects.”We pushed and pushed and pushed until we could make the break,” ATF regional head Jim Cavanaugh said. “This is a very difficult case.”Five of the burned churches were destroyed and four damaged, but no one was injured. In many cases, the fire was set in the sanctuary near the altar.Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church at Brierfield, a Bibb County church destroyed Feb. 3, said the congregation had been worried that the arsonists had some “political or religious agenda.” He said he had spoken to federal agents and understood the suspects were promising students from good families.”We really are concerned about them as people,” he said. “I would just like to know what they were thinking.”Acquaintances said DeBusk and Moseley were both amateur actors who were known as pranksters and dreamed of becoming stars. They performed in campus plays and appeared in a documentary.A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley set the fires “as a joke and it got out of hand.”Federal agents said Moseley admitted to the arsons after his arrest Wednesday, the day after a tire track, picked up as evidence in the probe, was traced to Cloyd’s sport utility vehicle. DeBusk also confessed, court documents show.All the burned churches were isolated and Baptist, but Gov. Bob Riley said the 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.”An attorney for Cloyd, Tommy Spina, said he had spent little time with his client and declined comment on the charges, but added: “This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.”A lawyer for DeBusk did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and court files did not list an attorney for Moseley.The three were jailed on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to a single church in Bibb County, Ashby Baptist. Convictions on each count would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.Additional charges are possible, authorities said, but the three were not believed linked to a 10th church fire that was investigated by a task force of dozens of state, federal and local officers.