Three Alabama College Students Arrested in U.S. Church Arsons
Three university students, including two aspiring actors known around their college campus as pranksters, were arrested Wednesday in a string of nine church fires across Alabama.
Federal agents say the defendants claimed the first few fires were set as “a joke” and the others were started to throw investigators off the track.
Governor Bob Riley says the fires did not appear to be “any type of conspiracy against organized religion” or the Baptist faith. With the arrests, he says, “the faith-based community can rest a little easier.”
Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared in federal court and were ordered held on church arson charges pending a hearing. Matthew Lee Cloyd, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was also arrested.
The fires broke out at five Baptist churches in Bibb County south of Birmingham on Feb. 3 and four Baptist churches in west Alabama on Feb. 7. The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency had made the investigation its top priority, with scores of federal agents joining state and local officers.
“While all three are entitled to have their day in court, we are very hopeful that this is the end to the fear that has been rampant in West Alabama,” says U.S. Congressman Artur Davis, D-Ala.
Five of the churches were destroyed and four damaged. In many cases, the fire was set in the sanctuary near the altar. No one was injured.
Acquaintances say DeBusk and Moseley were both amateur actors who were known as pranksters and dreamed of becoming stars. They performed in campus plays and appeared in a documentary film.
Moseley confessed to the arsons after his arrest, investigators said in court papers.
The papers said Moseley told agents that he, Cloyd and Debusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s sport utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand.”
Moseley also told agents the four fires in west Alabama were set “as a diversion to throw investigators off,” an attempt that “obviously did not work,” the court papers said.
Investigators had said earlier that they were looking for two men seen in a dark SUV near a couple of the church fires.
Agents said previously that there appeared to be no racial pattern in the fires. Black and White churches were both targeted. The three students are White and all either attend or previously were enrolled at Birmingham-Southern, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college.
Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church, a Bibb County church destroyed in the spree, says the congregation had been worried that the arsonists had some “political or religious agenda.” He said he had spoken to federal agents and understood the defendants were promising students from good families.
“We really are concerned about them as people,” he says. “I would just like to know what they were thinking.”
— Associated Press
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