Rewards related to church fires

| January 29, 2010

Several law enforcement agencies are trying to answer the questions surrounding several church fires set in east Texas since Jan. 1.

The first blaze was reported at Faith Church in Athens on New Year’s Day, followed by Grace Community and Lake Athens Baptist Church. Later in the month, three Smith County churches were hit.

“It’s now being investigated out of our Tyler office,” Bureau of Alcohol Tabacco and Explosives Public Information Officer Thomas Crowley said. “We’re still working with the other agencies involved. We’re working it as a task force.”

The ATF National Response Team did the on scene work late last week, and will consult with local authorities on the cases. The east Texas office remains in contact with the agents working the fire at a Temple Church.

Church arson cases stem from a number of causes. Some are racially-motivated, some involve robbery and some may grow out of the arsonists animosity toward Christianity itself. Crowley said a rash of church fires in the mid-1990s resulted in the creation of a National Church Arson Task Force.

“We had to report to the president on it,” Crowley said. “One of the guys, Jay Scott Ballinger was going across the country setting church fires.”

According to an Associated Press story, Ballinger was eventually sentenced to 42 years in prison for burning more than two dozen churches in eight states. Ballinger, according to the story, was “hostile to the church,” and a self-described “missionary of Lucifer.”

The Command Center for federal, state and local authorities working the arson cases has been set up at the Texas Department of Public Safety Office in Tyler.

The ATF has set up a 24 hour-a-day hotline at 1-888-ATF-FIRE. ATF has increased the reward offered for information leading to a resolution of the case from $5,000 to $10,000.

Henderson County Crimestoppers is now offering a $5,000 reward for help that leads to an arrest in the case. Crimestoppers can be reached at 903-675-8477 (TIPPS), or the toll free 1-800-545-8477 (TIPPS). Callers will remain anonymous.

Lake Athens Pastor John Green said Church Mutual, the largest insurer of places of worship in the nation has posted a $10,000 reward in the case. Green said he has not received a final determination as to whether the walls of the gutted sanctuary would have to come down. The congregation is now meeting in the gym.

“A retired cabinet maker built us a new platform, and we borrowed chairs from Dogwood, and a church over in Eustace.,” Green said.

The pastor anticipates spending about a year in the gym before a new sanctuary can be completed.

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Category: Church Security