A federal judge in Birmingham on Monday sentenced three former college students to prison for setting fire to nine rural Alabama churches in 2006.
According to the Birmingham News U.S. District Judge David Proctor sentenced Matthew Cloyd and Benjamin Moseley to eight years and one month in prison and ordered they each pay $3 million in restitution.
Russell DeBusk was sentenced to seven years and ordered to pay $1 million restitution.
The three men pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy and arson charges in the fires set Feb. 2 and Feb. 7, 2006. Moseley and Debusk were 19 at the time and students at Birmingham-Southern College. Cloyd was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Authorities say the three young men got caught up in an escalating vandalism spree that began when they went out to shoot deer in Bibb County, Alabama. According to reports, the students did “something stupid,” setting a church on fire.
The group allegedly watched responding fire trucks go by at two of the five churches they torched that night. Mosely and Cloyd allegedly traveled to western Alabama a few days later and burned four more churches as a diversion to throw investigators off.
Police identified the suspect after matching tire marks at the scene of one of the fires to a green Toyota 4Runner registered to Cloyd’s mother.
All the fires were at Baptist churches, causing immediate concern that they were motivated by race. African-American churches were frequently targeted for arson during the civil rights era. The churches burned in the 2006 spree were a mixture of predominantly black and predominantly white churches, though it wasn’t clear whether the arsonists knew that.
Some jumped to the conclusion that the target was organized Christianity or the Baptist faith.
Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch surmised the fires were set by people who “don’t like Baptists,” calling it “theological terrorism upon Baptists.”
The three get credit for one year already served in a county jail. On Thursday they will appear in a closed session at Bibb County Circuit Court to face state arson charges. They are seeking youthful offender status, which would impose no more than three years in prison. They also face arson charges in Sumter, Greene and Pickens counties.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.