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Tenth church burns in state

Ten rural community churches have now been reduced to ashes, and authorities don’t have many much more information than when the investigation began almost two weeks ago in Bibb County.

Saturday afternoon, Beaverton Free Will Baptist Church, a mostly white congregation in north Lamar County, became the 10th Baptist sanctuary set aflame in the last 11 days. The fire was reported around 4:20 p.m. Saturday, according to a spokeswoman from the Lamar County Sheriff’s Department. It was already “fully engulfed” when volunteer firemen arrived, he said.

The church – nestled in the woodline about 150 yards off a tw-lane county road – had an alarm system that alerted authorities to the blaze. But, like Boligee’s Morningstar Baptist Church or Gainesville’s Spring Valley Baptist, very little of the sanctuary remained to house the next day’s worship service.

Though the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is spearheading the search for the arsonists, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department is still checking out leads, mainly focused on Morningstar Baptist.

“We are following all of our leads, but we have gotten some that have produced good information and some that have not,” Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac said. “We are investigating all of our leads.”

As with the other nine fires, a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle was seen near the church Saturday afternoon, but Jim Cavanaugh, regional ATF director, said investigators’ eyes are open for any leads.

“Dark SUVs are pretty common,” he said. “the problem isn’t just that the media begins focusing on it, bu tthe police do, too.”

With so many dark SUVs on the road, many of them containing “two white males” – the only other description given for the arson suspects – solid information is often hard to find, Isaac said.

“All we really have now is that there were two white males and a dark colored SUV seen in the area,” he said. “But, that hasn’t even been proven yet.”

Forensics has not proven whether an accelerating fuel was used, Issac added. Investigators hoped to find more evidence from the churches that didn’t completely burn, he said, and they should be able to find more evidence in the ashes of those that were destroyed.

As the investigation has progressed, ATF and FBI profilers have continued combining physical evidence with knowledge of criminal patterns to assemble a profile of the arsonists, an ATF spokesman said.

“They’re not youth or teens,” ATF Special Agent Eric Kehn said. It’s probably someone in their 20s or 30s. They’re something like bosom buddies.”

With five white and five black congregations in the arsonists’ path of destruction, race is not considered a motive.

“We won’t know the motive probably until we find them,” Isaac said.

As they set an earlier fire, investigators said, the arsonists may have made their first mistake – one that could have cost them their lives.

Cavanaugh said the arsonists may have been briefly trapped in one of the church sanctuaries after setting it ablaze.

The ATF has set up a hotline, e-mail address and post office box for the arsonists to communicate with investigators, a spokesman said.

The suspects can reach investigators by phone at (205) 343-9531, by e-mail at talkwithus@cox.net or by mail addressed to Message for the Task Force, 1130 University Blvd., Suite B-9, PMB 458, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401.

– david.goodwin@demopolistimes.com