Three young men were arrested this morning in Alabama in connection with a series of rural church arsons described in court papers by one suspect as a joke that got out of hand.
Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., 19, students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared this morning in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama and were held on charges related to the arsons.
A spokeswoman for the court in Birmingham, Ala., said the pair were remanded to jail and are scheduled to return Friday for a bail hearing.
A third suspect, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, was also in custody but had yet to make a court appearance. Cloyd was a college student at a different school.
All three were charged in a criminal complaint that alleged one count of conspiracy and one count of arson. If convicted on both counts, they could face a maximum of 25 years in prison, officials said.
Additional charges could be filed, officials said at an afternoon news conference at the Tuscaloosa airport to discuss the arrests.
There does not appear to be “any type of conspiracy against organized religion,” Gov. Bob Riley told reporters at the televised news conference. “The faith-based community can rest a little easier.”
Last month, nine Baptist churches in Bibb County and western Alabama were torched. There had been initial fears that the fires were racially motivated, but investigators eventually ruled that out because the churches included white and black congregations.
An affidavit by the lead investigating agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives painted a picture of three college-age men who got caught up in an escalating vandalism spree that began when the trio went out on Feb. 2 to shoot deer in Bibb County, south of Birmingham.
The group was traveling in a green Toyota 4Runner registered to Cloyd’s mother, Kimberley, who told investigators that her son was the principal driver of the vehicle. Tire tracks found at the scenes of some of the arsons were consistent with the tire treads of the Cloyd vehicle, according to the affidavit.
Law enforcement agents said they interviewed an unnamed witness Tuesday. The witness told officials that Matthew Cloyd had said that “he [Cloyd] and Moseley had done something stupid” — setting a church on fire.
According to the witness, Cloyd said they “did it as a joke and it got out of hand.”
The group torched five churches in Bibb County beginning on Feb. 2. At two of the churches, they watched the responding firetrucks go by, according to the police account of an interview with Moseley.
At the news conference, officials said the excitement apparently stimulated the trio to go on to other churches.
The affidavit states that Moseley was interviewed this morning by police and agents. According to the document, Moseley told authorities that he and Cloyd traveled to western Alabama on Feb. 6 and burned four more churches “as a diversion to throw investigators off. Moseley said the diversion obviously did not work.”
In his interview, DeBusk said he was present during the first night of arson but said he did not learn of the four other fires until later.
The ATF made the case a top priority, sending more than 50 agents to Alabama. In addition to ATF and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local and state agencies participated in the investigation.
Church arsons in the South were frequent in the turbulent civil rights era when predominantly African American churches were targeted. A second wave of burnings hit black churches in the 1990s, eventually leading to the 1996 federal Church Arson Prevention Act, which prohibits defacing, damaging or destroying religious property.
Investigators said that they doubted that race was a motive for the current arsons because the burned churches were evenly divided between white and black congregations.
A 10th Baptist church in Lamar County was burned on Feb. 11. Investigators said it was arson, but was not believed to be connected to other nine. The fire was not mentioned in the court papers.