Nine fires set at Baptist churches in Alabama last months apparently were neither racially motivated hate crimes nor attacks on organized religion or the Baptist faith, but instead a prank that got out of hand, authorities said Wednesday in announcing the arrests of three college students accused of the spree.
Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College, and Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, were arrested Wednesday morning.
Moseley confessed to the arsons after his arrest, investigators said in court papers.
All three were charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of damaging a church by means of fire, according to news reports. Each count carries a penalty of five years in prison, but additional charges could be filed.
Federal authorities say the three young men got caught up in an escalating vandalism spree that began when they went out to shoot deer on Feb. 2 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. They “did it as a joke, and it got out of hand,” a witness reportedly said.
Mosely and Cloyd allegedly traveled to western Alabama on Feb. 6 and burned four more churches “as a diversion to throw investigators off,” a tact that didn’t work.
Police matched tire marks to a green Toyota 4Runner registered to Cloyd’s mother. She reportedly told authorities he was the principle driver.
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 area. The churches burned in the current 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.”
“I’m a Baptist,” Welch said, “and I don’t intend to stand for it.”
He criticized the media for not making more of the story, saying if the fires had targeted any other “ethnic group in the United States of America,” people would be up in arms.
One of the churches attacked, meanwhile, the predominantly African-American Darcy Baptist Church, placed a message on their church marquee that read, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” a prayer spoken by Jesus from the cross, concerning those who put him to death.
All three of the suspects are white, and all were currently or had been previously enrolled at Birmingham Southern, a private liberal-arts college of about 1,500 students affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
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, according to the Associated Press.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.