A recap of the church arsons in East Texas

| February 21, 2010

On New Year's Day, the string of fires started at Little Hope Baptist Church in Van Zandt County.

The church had been recognized by the state of Texas for its longevity. Originally, the fire was believed to have been electrical, but now we know that's not the case. It was actually the first church targeted, but investigators didn't announce that information, because they didn't want to compromise their investigation.

But Little Hope wasn't the only fire on January 1st. Athens was also hit. Faith Church was the first fire to be labeled suspicious, and later classified as arson.

But everything about this case changed ten days later, when Athens was rocked again, twice in the span of two hours.

Just before eleven on the night of January 11th, Athens fire crews were called to Grace Community Church.

"We attempted with multiple lines to put the fire out," said Athens fire chief John McQueary. "We were unsuccessful."

An hour later, while crews were still finishing with Grace Community, they were called to Lake Athens Baptist Church on County Road 2495. Even then, after four fires, McQueary started to suspect the worst–that all of them were connected.

"It's scary because the first one you're on is well involved and you're fearful now the other one is going to be well involved because it's probably from the same individual," McQueary said. "They stole the same objects in each church and just those particular objects. And the fire was located in the same point of origin in the buildings."

ATF agents were also on the scene of the second round of church fires. At that point law enforcement agencies were already banding together to stop these attacks.

"You have to have a little luck on your side but we are going to get bold and we're going to get aggressive and find this person or this group of people," McQueary said.

Four fires, including three in Athens was bad, especially when authorities confirmed that they were arson, and as the evidence pointed to the connections between them. But the story changed again when the alleged arsonist targeted the city of Tyler.

On January 16th, five days after the double fire in Athens, Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler was destroyed. This fire was right around seven o'clock in the evening, early enough for church members to be there to watch it burn.

"When I drove up, I just couldn't help it. I just fell apart 'cause this is home, this is my spiritual home," said Tyland Baptist Church member Juanita Wiggins.

And it was at the scene of this fifth church fire, that KLTV 7 cameras first heard what became a sort of battle cry over the next month.

"This is a church building and that the church is the people and this can be rebuilt and we can move on and God has a purpose in this and right now all we need to do is come together," said Pastor David Mahfood.

Another church would understand that feeling just one day later. First Church of Christ Scientist, right on Broadway in the middle of Tyler, burned on Sunday, January 17th. As the ATF investigation continued, the call went out to other churches–protect yourself.

"I would ask that all the churches in this city just, because of the uniqueness of this, that they be vigilant and just watch their things," said Tyler fire chief Neil Franklin.

And churches around East Texas began to answer. Whether in the form of security cameras, motion detectors, or even 'round the clock surveillance by church members, congregations were determined to keep their buildings from being targeted.

That vigilance is what saved the seventh church to catch fire–Fellowship of Prairie Creek in Lindale.

"I decided to pull in and see if it was smoke," said Wayne Green, who called in the fire.

"And, when I opened the car door, I smelled the smoke."

The chapel had been standing for more than 100 years, and was recently renovated. Because of watchful eyes, it survived.

The next church, Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point, was not so lucky.

KLTV 7 was on the ground on the morning of February 4th, and in the air in the days after, getting a look at a building completely gutted by flames. It was also after the Wills Point Fire, that the ATF took on a larger role in the investigation.

"Because of the size of the fire, the previous fires in East Texas, and the suspicion here that someone broke into the church, we are calling out our national response team," said ATF agent Tom Crowley.

Then finally, less than five days after the massive fire in Wills Point, the alleged arsonists struck again, and just like a month before in Athens, it happened twice in one night.

On February 8th, just before 9PM, fire crews were called to Dover Baptist Church near Lindale, and another East Texas pastor was forced to watch his church burn.

"Disbelief and shock," said Dover Baptist pastor Carl Samples. "I can't comprehend how anyone would do the Lord's house this way, if that's what it is. With all the other fires that's been around, it just leads one to believe that's possibly what it is."

And just down the road from Dover, fire fighters were responding to Clear Spring Missionary Baptist church, the tenth East Texas church fire that would eventually be ruled arson, in a span of less than 40 days.

And it was after that fire, that more information came out. The pastor of Clear Spring spoke to KLTV 7 about what he'd seen, and what he saw after looking at video of his church from the air.

"They did find some Bibles that happened to be in the baptism pool," said Clear Spring pastor Brandon Owens. "So they believe that they used that as an igniter or whatever to get the fire started. They had Bibles in there, they had hymnals in there. They actually, what it seemed to be, turned the communion table upside down."

At a press conference the next day, the ATF, and other members of the investigative team, said the string of fires was one of the most unique in the state's history.

"There have been serial arsons in the past, but this is fast approaching one of the largest ones that we have ever worked on, especially in Texas," said ATF spokesperson Franceska Perot.

"Hopefully we'll be able to put an end to this pretty shortly," said Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton.

Thousands of East Texans are hoping that's finally happened.



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Category: Church Security

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