State charges filed against alleged church arsonist

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 8, 2006

District attorneys Greg Griggers, Michael Jackson and Chris McCool are content to wait their turn at prosecuting the college students who set fire to nine Alabama churches in February and March.

But they made sure this week that – once the feds were finished with Matthew Lee Cloyd, Russell Lee DeBusk and Benjamin Nathan Moseley –

they’ll have their shot at prosecuting the trio.

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“We have holds placed on them,” 17th Circuit DA Greg Griggers said Thursday. “So if need arises, our sheriffs are prepared to go get them. We intend to take custody of them as soon as they finish the federal court proceedings.”

Griggers, and fellow DAs Michael Jackson and Chris McCool presented evidence to grand juries in the affected counties – Greene and Sumter for Griggers, Pickens for McCool and Bibb, where it all began, for Jackson – as soon as possible after the three alleged arsonists were apprehended.

But the announcement was delayed until indictments could be obtained in every county. Alabama Attorney General Troy King announced the state indictments in a press conference Wednesday.

Attorneys for the three have indicated a desire to plead guilty rather than go to trial, and some church members have said they would like the defendants to get less than the maximum sentence, which could amount to life imprisonment.

Alabama Attorney General Troy King called talk of a possible plea deal “very premature” and said members of the burned churches would be consulted on how to proceed.

“Many have said that these were just college pranks, that this was a joke that got out of hand,” King said. “They were not jokes then, and they are not jokes now.”

Prosecutors from the counties where the fires occurred said they would seek lengthy jail terms whether in plea discussions or at trial.

“We intend to seek prison time in all of these cases,” said District Attorney Chris McCool of Pickens County, where Dancy First Baptist Church was heavily damaged by smoke and flames during the arson spree in early February.

King, McCool and other prosecutors held a news conference to announce state charges in Bibb County, where five churches were burned on Feb. 3. Four more churches were torched four days later in west Alabama.

Matthew Lee Cloyd of Indian Springs and Benjamin Nathan Moseley of Birmingham, both 20, and 19-year-old Russell Lee DeBusk of Birmingham previously were charged in federal court and in some of the counties where fires occurred.

In state court, Cloyd and Moseley each were indicted on nine counts of second-degree arson and nine counts of third-degree burglary. DeBusk was charged with five counts of second-degree arson and five counts of third-degree burglary.

Tommy Spina, an attorney representing Cloyd, agreed with prosecutors that prison time was a near certainty.

“I don’t think anyone believes justice will be service by a slap on the wrist,” said Spina. “At the same time, I don’t think they have to exact a pound of flesh.”

The three, arrested March 8, are being held in the Shelby County Jail on the federal conspiracy counts and have pleaded not guilty, as was required during their initial appearances.

A federal magistrate approved bond of $50,000 for each suspect, but all decided to remain jailed in Shelby County, near their homes, rather than risk being sent to one of the rural counties where the fires occurred.