Arrests made in church arson case

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 9, 2006

Though the three suspects responsible for nine church fires throughout west Alabama were not stopped dead in their tracks at the time of the fire, it was their tire tracks that would eventually lead authorities to them.

Early Wednesday morning the announcement was made that Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell Lee DeBush Jr., 19, both students at Birmingham Southern College were taken into custody and confessed to the fires. A third suspect, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham was also apprehended and charged shortly before noon.

Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac said after over a month of investigation, things finally began to fall into place.

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“The arrests came from the intensive investigation that has been going on for the last four weeks,” Isaac said. “Through a process of elimination in this case they found that the vehicle was a 2000 Toyota Four Runner that was dark green used as the getaway car.”

Moseley and DeBush Jr. were taken into custody first. Cloy was the last to be brought in. A conversation with Cloyd’s girlfriend, Isaac said, was a helpful in tracking him down.

“He called his girlfriend late while agents were trying to get up with him and told her he was in trouble because he had participated in the fires of these churches,” Isaac said. “He told her he was breaking up with her and people were looking for him.”

The motive for the fires in Bibb County was thrill-seeking Isaac said. One of the suspects hunted in the area and all three were out on a night hunting trip when the fires were set. The three were drinking when they decided to break into a church to see if they could. Eventually, the idea was presented to set fire to the church, Isaac said. The suspects enjoyed the thrill of watching the fire engines arrive and escaping the scene so much, Isaac said, it prompted them to set other fires.

The fires in Greene, Sumter and Pickens were part of a different plan, Isaac said.

“Those were a diversionary tactic,” Isaac said. “They were coming over here to burn these churches in order to take the attention away from them living in that area.”

Investigators took tire prints from the scenes of the Bibb, Sumter and Greene County fires and went to work, Isaac said. They determined the tires were Goodrich TA tires and began searching hundreds of dealers to find who had placed this brand of tire on an SUV. They eventually tracked the tires to a Pelham tire dealer and things quickly came together.

Isaac said he appreciated everyone who logged long hours to bring the three to justice.

“We certainly appreciate all of the people who have worked on this case,” Isaac said. “The FBI, ATF, fire marshals as well as the ABI. There were also several local officers and troopers because we had patrols around the clock.”

In a statement shortly after the arrests, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis also expressed his gratitude.

“We are pleased that the investigation in to Alabama’s church fires has resulted in these arrests,” Davis said. “While we should appreciate that the suspects will have their right to trial, it is my hope that these assaults on our communities have been brought to an end.

I commend the superb efforts of the ATF, the FBI and the entire team of law enforcement officers for their skillful work on this investigation.”

Alabama Attorney General Troy King said the arrests were an example of persistence and good police work.

“Law enforcement has, once again, done what they do,” King said. “Arrests have been made, communities have been secured, and a reign of terror that had gripped rural Alabama and riveted the attention of the nation has ended. As I have said all along, a man’s evil deeds will always find him out. Once again, they have. Justice will be had.”

The plan now, Isaac said, was to put the incident behind them and move forward.

“We are going to put most of our emphasis now on trying to help these pastors and ministers rebuild,” Isaac said. “We have talked to several people in Texas and New Jersey that are willing to give assistance at no cost to try to rebuild these church houses.”

Davis said he hoped everyone would step forward and help the congregations on the road to recovery.

“All of us should continue to offer our prayers to the churches damaged or destroyed by these assailants, and work to rebuild the houses of worship and the communities they support,” Davis said.