BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Three college students, including two aspiring actors known around campus as pranksters, were arrested today in a string of nine church fires that spread fear across Alabama last month.
Federal agents said the defendants claimed that the first few blazes were set as a joke and that the others were started to throw investigators off the track.
Gov. Bob Riley said the fires did not appear to be any type of conspiracy against organized religion or the Baptist faith. With the arrests, he said, 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 Friday. Matthew Lee Cloyd, 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, said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.
Federal agents traced tire tracks found at some of the churches to one suspect s parents, who then acknowledged their son was involved.
Five churches were destroyed and four damaged. In many cases, the fire was set in the sanctuary near the altar. No one was injured.
Acquaintances said 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.
Authorities had said earlier that they were looking for two men seen in a dark SUV near a couple of the church fires.
Agents analyzed tire tracks found at the scene of six fires and reviewed records of local motorists who had purchased that model, one of whom was Cloyd s mother.
The day before the arrests, authorities spoke with Cloyd s parents, Kimberly and Michael Cloyd. The father said his son admitted that he knew who did it and he was there, according to court papers.
An attorney for Cloyd, Tommy Spina, declined to comment on the charges but added: This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.
A lawyer for DeBusk did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and court files did not list an attorney for Moseley.
Investigators said previously that there appeared to be no racial pattern in the fires; four were white congregations, five were black. While all were Baptist churches, that is the dominant faith in the region, and agents were uncertain if that denomination was a factor.
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 at Brierfield, a Bibb County church destroyed in the spree, said 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 said. I would just like to know what they were thinking.
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