When nine Baptist churches were burned to the ground across rural Alabama over the past month, investigators knew they were probably not looking at a hate crime, but suspected the fires were set by someone who was familiar with the back roads in the remote areas where the churches were located.
What they didn't suspect was that the perpetrators would be three middle-class college students from a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, who set the first fires as a "joke" and then sparked the others in an attempt to cover their tracks.
The three suspects, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20; Benjamin N. Moseley, 19; and Russell L. DeBusk Jr., 19, were arrested on Wednesday by federal agents, who said the arsons began when the students went on a deer-hunting trip, according to a report in The New York Times. They are all now being held in jail on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to the Ashby Baptist church, with additional charges possible. If convicted of setting all of the fires, each count carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
Moseley and DeBusk Jr., theater majors at the private, United Methodist Church-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, were arrested on the campus early Wednesday after admitting their involvement in the fires to federal agents. They told investigators that after initially setting fire to five churches in Bibb County, just south of Birmingham, the two students burned four additional churches days later in more remote areas, hoping to divert investigators.
Cloyd, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was arrested later in the day. It was the special-order tires on Cloyd's Toyota 4Runner that left the tell-tale tracks at the site of several of the arsons which led the investigators to the students.
According to the Times, the arrests surprised investigators, who had suspected that the fires were set by people familiar with the remote roads in the areas near the churches, not upper-middle-class students from Birmingham.
"This is just so hard to believe," said the state fire marshal, Richard W. Montgomery. "My profile on these suspects is shot all to heck and back."
Though there had been a number of racially-motivated church fires set throughout the Southeast in the mid-'90s, from the beginning, investigators didn't think the Alabama fires were hate crimes. Of the initial fires, four of the churches burned on February 3 had predominantly white congregations, and one black. The four burned as diversions on February 7 had black congregations.
An analysis of the tire tracks found on the scene of some of the fires led agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the home of Cloyd's parents on Tuesday, where Mrs. Cloyd told investigators that her son was the primary driver of the 4Runner with the specially ordered tires. She told agents her son had told her he was present but didn't set the fires, but that he knew who did.
An unnamed witness told agents that Cloyd said he and Moseley "had done something stupid," adding that it was something that Moseley had done "as a joke, and it got out of hand," according to the Times. Moseley later admitted to agents that after the first two fires were set, the other three were a "spontaneous" act by himself, Cloyd and DeBusk. Moseley said the group later set fire to the four other churches in an attempt to throw off authorities.
Investigators said they pored over more than 1,000 leads involving nearly 500 vehicles and 1,300 individuals before the unexpected break that led them to the Cloyds.
"We believe this is an isolated incident," Governor Bob Riley said, according to the Times. "We don't think there is any kind of organized conspiracy against religion or against the Baptists." The news was welcomed by the parishioners of other Baptist churches in the area, who have been nervously standing guard over their churches over the past month fearing they might be next.
Moseley and DeBusk were active in the theater program at Birmingham-Southern College. On the day they were arrested, the campus newspaper, The Hilltop News, featured a story under the headline, "Theater Students to Appear in Film" which reported, "BSC students Russ DeBusk and Ben Moseley are on the road to stardom." Both were slated to appear in a locally produced independent film in which DeBusk would portray a young man who struggled to motivate his slacker friends. DeBusk and Moseley were both suspended and banned from campus following their arrest until further notice.
Officials found an ominous, if vague, posting on Moseley's Facebook.com account from January 9, in which Cloyd wrote: "To my dearest friend Moseley: The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless, the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil! Only one problem stands in our way. I got a new cell phone for Christmas and I no longer have your number, so send it to me and evil shall once again come to pass! May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!"
The fires came nearly a decade after President Bill Clinton signed the "Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996," which strengthened the penalties for violent crimes against places of worship. According to Reuters, the FBI had been investigating whether the fires could be considered hate crimes under the act, which makes it a federal crime to intentionally damage or destroy houses of worship or use threats or violence to halt the exercise of religion.