ATF blames Texas church fires on serial arsonist

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 - 4:56pm

TYLER, Texas – A spate of recent fires that destroyed or damaged several churches in eastern Texas were intentionally set, likely by the same person or group, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Fires that broke out at two churches near Tyler on Monday have not yet been ruled arson, but authorities are investigating them as such. They were reported within an hour of one another and there were signs that at least one of the churches had been broken into.

Since Jan. 1, eight churches — seven in eastern Texas and one in the central part of the state — have been set ablaze deliberately, authorities have said.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is heading the investigation into the blazes, believe they are the work of a serial arsonist or group of arsonists, said Clay Alexander, the head of the bureau's office in Tyler.

Alexander offered few details about Monday's blazes, but he said they were being investigated as arsons.

The fires broke out at two churches about three miles apart in a rural area northwest of Tyler, which is about 85 miles southeast of Dallas.

"We would just like to find out why this is going on and please stop it," Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton said.

Nearby fire departments have been on high alert because of the fires, and firefighters from throughout the area responded quickly to the Monday blazes at the Dover Baptist Church and Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale.

There were no injuries reported in either fire, but the damage appeared to be extensive, said Hale, who worked at both fire scenes until about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

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

Assistant Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson, who was first on the scene at Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said flames were coming out of the building's roof when she got there. The back door of the church had been broken, she said.

On Tuesday, the church's red brick walls were all that remained. It's pastor, Brandon Owens, said he planned to meet with his congregation of about 50 Tuesday night to figure out where they would worship Sunday.

"I will be preaching," Owens said. "We will be OK. We'll still be going."

The church also burned eight years ago when it was struck by lightning.

Several people gathered Tuesday near the still-smoldering Dover church. Most of sanctuary's roof had collapsed, but the steeple was still standing.

"It's heartbreaking," said 70-year-old Floyd Moseley, a retired Tyler firefighter who used to belong to the church and whose father helped build it.

The church only has about 70 members, with regular Sunday attendance about half of that.

Dover Baptist 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.

"It's devastating," Pastor Carl Samples said. "It definitely tests your faith, but I know beyond every doubt that God can see us through."

The ATF deemed the investigation urgent on Jan. 11, when two churches were torched in nearby Athens, said Alexander. He said agents who were working last weekend's Super Bowl in Miami were brought in to help.

"We've been doing this for a long time," Alexander said. "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."

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

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