ATF Blames Texas Church Fires On Serial Arsonist

| February 9, 2010

Fire destroyed the Clear Springs Baptist Church near Tyler on February 8, 2009. Federal investigators suspect arson.

Recent fires that destroyed or damaged several churches in eastern Texas were likely set by one person or group of people, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Fires that broke out at two churches near Tyler on Monday have not yet been ruled arson, but authorities are investigating them as such. They were reported within an hour of one another and there were signs that at least one of the churches had been broken into.

Since Jan. 1, ten churches — eight in eastern Texas and two in the central part of the state — have been set ablaze deliberately, authorities have said.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is heading the investigation into the blazes, believe they are the work of a serial arsonist or group of arsonists, said Clay Alexander, the head of the bureau's office in Tyler.

The agency is offering a $25,000 reward in the case and has set up a hotline for information: 512.424.2080.

Alexander offered few details about Monday's blazes, but he said they were being investigated as arsons.

The fires broke out at two churches about three miles apart in a rural area northwest of Tyler, which is about 85 miles southeast of Dallas.

"We would just like to find out why this is going on and please stop it," Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton said.

Nearby fire departments have been on high alert because of the fires, and firefighters from throughout the area responded quickly to the Monday blazes at the Dover Baptist Church and Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale.

There were no injuries reported in either fire, but the damage appeared to be extensive, said Hale, who worked at both fire scenes until about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

"They were big ones. They're not to the ground, but they'll be total losses," he said.

Assistant Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson, who was first on the scene at Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said flames were coming out of the building's roof when she got there. The back door of the church had been broken, she said.

The church's pastor, Brandon Owens, said Monday he would somehow hold Sunday services.

Several people gathered Tuesday near the still-smoldering Dover church. Most of small building's roof had collapsed, but the steeple was still standing.

"It's heartbreaking," said 70-year-old Floyd Moseley, a retired Tyler firefighter who used to belong to the church and whose father helped build it.

The church only has about 70 members, with regular Sunday attendance about half of that.

Dover Baptist recently took precautions because of so many church fires, trustee Albert Valadez said. The staff barred the church doors and installed "dummy" inoperable video cameras above the main doors because the church couldn't afford real video equipment.

"It's devastating," Pastor Carl Samples said. "It definitely tests your faith, but I know beyond every doubt that God can see us through."

Rusk County Sheriff Danny Pirtle asked to meet with area church leaders on Thursday to discuss safety measures.

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Category: Church Security

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