Authorities say they want to talk to perpetrators
BEAVERTON, Alabama (CNN) — A fire that burned a northwest Alabama church Saturday was determined to be arson and may be related to nine other church fires in the state, authorities said.
The fire heavily damaged Beaverton Freewill Baptist Church.
Nine other church fires since February 3 have been ruled arsons as well, said Ragan Ingram, assistant commissioner of insurance for the Alabama Department of Insurance, which oversees the state fire marshal’s office.
All of the churches are Baptist; five have predominantly black congregations, and five, including Beaverton Freewill, have predominantly white membership.
Meanwhile Sunday, authorities said they want to hear from those responsible for setting the church fires.
“We do think they have a message,” said Jim Cavanaugh of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We would like to hear what they would have to say … We want them to call us. We want to listen.”
Police believe the arsons are being committed by two young men in their 20s or early 30s, he said.
“We think they’re buddies, partners, an inseparable team,” he said.
“I think there’s probably some stressors in their life: Family, relationships, work, the economy. The region’s been devastated by a hurricane, there’s a war in Iraq, there’s a lot of terrible things going on.”
Authorities have set up a telephone number, an e-mail address and a post office box specifically for contact from the arsonists, he said, and were advertising them locally, since the perpetrators are believed to be in the area.
“We appreciate that they have not targeted any occupied buildings,” Cavanaugh said. “We do understand they haven’t tried to attack humans. That’s significant to us.”
However, he said that could change and someone could be hurt or killed.
“This is some high-risk behavior. They need to think about that,” he said. “We’re not trying to hornswoggle them on this.”
The arsonists could be acting out of anger, a desire for revenge or excitement, or against churches or religion — possibly even the Baptist denomination, he said, but the motive also could be other personal frustrations.
“They have those answers, and I think maybe they want to consider opening a dialogue with us,” he said.
Cavanaugh said he believes the Beaverton fire is linked to the nine other arsons in central and western Alabama, though authorities cannot say for sure.
“Just a gut, old-cop feeling … it feels like it could be related,” he said.
Beaverton Freewill is in Lamar County, just north of Pickens County, he noted, where Dancy First Baptist Church, south of Aliceville, was burned last week.
The Beaverton Freewill fire was reported at 4:17 p.m. Saturday, Lamar County Sheriff Terry Perkins said.
Cavanaugh said the blaze apparently began near the church’s front door. There were witnesses, he said, and “we have solid leads from those other scenes. We’re going to solve this case. It’s a solvable case.”
In the Dancy fire, evidence showed the arsonists might have briefly become trapped, he said, and possibly could have been injured. A hand print was also recovered from the scene.
‘Fast and furious’
Although tests show accelerants were used in the fires, Cavanaugh said they were not used in large amounts.
“These guys aren’t going in with gas cans,” he said. “This is down and dirty, fast and furious, quick and mean, in and out. These guys are not lingering in there.”
Authorities, he said, are still searching for a dark-colored sport utility vehicle, possibly a Nissan Pathfinder, and two white men seen at some of the other scenes.
Although the Beaverton fire apparently was set during the day, Cavanaugh noted the church was in a remote location. Beaverton is a town of 200 people about 85 miles northwest of Birmingham.
The Rev. Dwight Bailey, pastor of Beaverton Freewill Baptist, said he has prayed for the arsonists, and though he would like to see them caught, “I would like to see them learn to know Jesus Christ.”
The Beaverton fire collapsed the back wall of the building, said Terri Johnson, who lives in nearby Sulligent and was at the scene soon after the fire began.
“When we got there, it obviously was in the beginning stages of the fire,” Johnson said. “It was coming from the middle of the church. Then the fire began to rage. Then it engulfed the whole church.”
Johnson said she and her sister were passing through Beaverton when a sheriff’s car sped by, sirens blaring. They followed the car out of curiosity, Johnson said.
“It was burned to the point where it was barely standing,” she said.
More than 100 ATF personnel, including special agents and forensic experts, are investigating the fires. A criminal and a geographical profiler were also called in.