East Texas on edge over church fires

| February 5, 2010

Church members watched in horror as Grace Community Church in Athens went up in flames a few weeks ago.

Their horror turned to dismay when some firefighters hurriedly left the late-night blaze before it was extinguished.

"Our people were like, 'What's going on here?' " said Brian Brandt, a pastor at the church. "It was because they got another call – another church was burning three to five miles away."

The other church was Lake Athens Baptist Church. The two were set ablaze within hours of each other. The fires are among at least six that may be connected.

Now authorities are investigating another fire that broke out Thursday morning at a Wills Point church. Authorities say there was evidence of forced entry at the Wills Point fire, but it is too early to determine if that fire is arson or if it is connected to the others.

"There's some similarities with them, and there's some differences," said Tom Crowley, public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The fires have set East Texans on edge.

"The disturbing part is it changes everyone's lifestyle," said Neal Franklin, fire chief in Tyler, where two churches have been destroyed. "It changes our attitude."

Some churches have hired extra security; those that can't have enlisted volunteers to keep watch. Police have stepped up patrols.

When the second fire broke out in Tyler, "it suddenly hit everyone, 'Oh, my goodness, this could continue every day potentially,' " he said. "That's the tension."

No fires had occurred for two weeks when the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point began to belch smoke early Thursday.

No one has been injured in the fires. But property losses are in the millions.

According to the ATF, 90 houses of worship were set on fire last year nationwide. The average loss was about $250,000.


Anxiety and fear fan the flames.

"It's cutting at the core values of what, I would like to believe, is the vast majority of the United States," said Doug Williams, arson specialist for the U.S. Fire Administration. "Who would want to do such a heinous thing?"

Brandt, of Grace Community Church, said seeing the blackened property, the building largely built by the congregation, brought the fires home.

"The people in our congregation did a lot of the labor, they thought through decisions, they painted, they did a lot of work there," he said. At the Sunday worship service a few days later, members gathered outside, sang hymns and viewed the scorched pieces of their spiritual home.

Pastor Shane Barnes lifted up a charred remnant to show the crowd.

"We've still got a cross," he said.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton set up a National Church Arson Task Force after a series of church fires were thought to be racially motivated. But according to the National Fire Protection Association, the usual range of motives was found.

Motives for arsonists include not just prejudice, but covering up another crime such as burglary; insurance fraud; or simply the arsonist's craving to start fires.

"They start out small, then through that process they have to feed the beast," said Williams. "They progress to outdoor, nuisance fires, Dumpster fires, sheds, shacks, buildings. … Then they graduate to occupied structures."

New Year's Day

The East Texas fires began New Year's Day in Athens.

A fire last week at Saginaw Park Baptist Church in Tarrant County and another recent church fire in Temple, an arson case, are not part of the East Texas investigation.

Officials are not talking about the evidence in the East Texas fires, but racial or denominational prejudice aren't common factors. Baptist churches, a Christian Science church and nondenominational churches have burned.

Church members say covering up a burglary doesn't seem to be a motive, since few items appear to have been taken before the fires were set. "They just got a few dollars," said the Rev. Leon Wallace of Faith Church in Athens.

Faith Church was the first to burn. Though Wallace said he hated to hear about other churches being victimized, "to a certain degree I was relieved," he said. "Because, in the beginning, I think they just looked inward. They looked at me, the pastor, setting the fire."

One reason officials are puzzled is that the arsonist has been fairly brazen, Crowley said.

Churches present attractive targets because they often are in remote areas, are frequently empty, and may be old buildings made of easily flammable materials. But some of the buildings targeted in East Texas were in heavily traveled areas, were contemporary structures made of less flammable products, and were set on fire during the day.

Low conviction rate

The truth is, arsonists often are not caught.

"About 40 percent of all fires in the U.S. are incendiary," Williams said. Of those, about 18 percent are cleared through plea bargains. "Those that do go to trial, you get about a 2 percent conviction rate," he said.

The disposition rate is low because arson cases are almost always circumstantial, with few witnesses.

And despite the East Texas outbreak, over the last couple of decades, church fires have been declining steadily, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit fire safety advisory group.

While awaiting news on the hunt for the arsonist who burned their churches, East Texas church members are carrying on, heartened by an outpouring of support from other congregations and strangers around the country.

"The building is burned but the church lives on in our hearts," said Emily Becker, a member of the Christian Science church in Tyler.

While rebuilding, they're also praying that the person who set fire to their buildings will be apprehended.

"We want them to be brought to justice," Becker said. "But we're trying to forgive them as taught in the Lord's Prayer."



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