Unusual Suspects in Church Burnings

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In recent years, church burnings in Alabama have become a disturbing, all too common event, viewed primarily as hate crimes of one kind or another. In 1996 it was a volunteer fireman, Chris Deer, who was arrested for and ultimately pleaded guilty to setting rural Alabama churches on fire. Three years later, self-professed Satanist Jay Ballinger was arrested for setting churches on fire in Alabama and other states. He’s serving a federal life sentence. So it came as quite a shock to law enforcement and residents alike Wednesday when three Birmingham, Alabama-area college students, all from upscale families and students at a private, religious-based college, were arrested for allegedly setting nine rural Baptist churches on fire in February."It's hard to believe it was these kinds of kids," says Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac. "It makes me mad. My people say the Lord will take care of them, but I say I hope the Lord lets me have them first. If they get life in prison it isn't long enough."

According to court documents filed Wednesday in Alabama, Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., 19, Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Mathew Lee Cloyd, 20, say they set five small, isolated churches about 50 miles southwest of their Birmingham homes ablaze Feb. 3 as a joke after a night of deer hunting and drinking. Then they set four similar churches on fire Feb. 7 some 100 miles west of Birmingham to try to throw investigators off any clues. Instead, identical tire tracks from Cloyd’s Toyota 4Runner ultimately led investigators to the threesome. Moseley, Cloyd and DeBusk are all being held on federal conspiracy to burn churches charges, and remain in custody pending a detention hearing in federal court. The charge carries a sentence upon conviction of five to 20 years. Family members reached by TIME Wednesday declined to comment.

All three suspects grew up in upscale Birmingham suburbs of Vestavia and Hoover, the former the neighborhood of ex-Healthsouth CEO Richard Scrushy, one of Birmingham’s richest and most notorious residents, who beat federal white-collar crime charges last year of cooking Healthsouth’s books. The suspects knew each other from attending Birmingham-Southern College, a private and exclusive liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church since its founding in 1856. Moseley and DeBusk were fellow drama and theater students at Birmingham-Southern, which has a small enrollment of 1,500 students. Cloyd also attended Birmingham-Southern before transferring to the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) last year to become a pre-med student. Officials at Birmingham Southern did not allow reporters on campus on Wednesday.

Investigators had been largely baffled by the blazes since the churches targeted were home to both white and black congregations. Perhaps they hadn't considered the possibility that they were just adolescent pranks rather than hate crimes. At this point, investigators say the "thrill" motive is the best way they can explain it.

But at the burned churches, pastors still don’t understand it. Says Walter Hawkins, pastor of Dancy First Baptist in in rural Bibb County, "They burned the building but they can’t burn the church because it is in us."

—Reported by Verna Gates and Frank Sikora