ATF: More Texas church fires linked to arsonist

| February 10, 2010

DALLAS (AP) — Two rural church fires on the same night in eastern Texas this week were the acts of an arsonist, a federal agent said Wednesday.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reached that conclusion Wednesday in the fires that damaged the Dover Baptist Church and Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, ATF spokesman Thomas Crowley said Wednesday night.

The two fires happened within an hour and three miles of each other Monday night near Tyler, which is 90 miles east of Dallas.

The fires bring to nine the number of deliberately set church fires since Jan. 1 in eastern Texas near Tyler and nearby Athens, about 30 miles to the southwest. The ATF has said another church fire this year in Temple, about 120 miles south of Dallas in central Texas, was set deliberately.

No injuries have been reported, but agents suspect the work of a serial arsonist or group of arsonists in the eastern Texas fires.

Clay Alexander of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives expressed frustration Tuesday that the arsonist or arsonists have evaded capture for more than a month.

"We've been doing this for a long time," said Alexander, head of the agency's office in Tyler. "We're not getting a lot of sleep. We're tired. We're frustrated that this is continuing to happen. But we remain strong in our belief that we're going to find who did this."

The ATF deemed the investigation urgent Jan. 11, when two churches were torched in Athens, he said.

Alexander declined to elaborate on similarities among the church fires.

"We just don't want to discuss that at this point, what we know as far as the same type of things that are happening," he said. "We feel that quite a few of these are related."

Nearby fire departments have been on high alert, and firefighters throughout the area responded quickly to the Monday blazes, both of which caused extensive damage, said Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale, who worked at both fire scenes until about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

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

The Dover church has about 70 members, with regular Sunday attendance about half of that. Its congregation 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.

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

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Category: Church Security

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