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Police arrest 3 men in connection with Alabama church fires; fires started as ‘a joke’

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Law enforcement officials announced March 8 the arrests of three men in connection with a string of Alabama church fires that had terrorized the state since early February.

The three men are Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, of Birmingham, Ala; Russell Lee Debusk Jr., 19, of Hoover, Ala.; and Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, of Indian Springs, Ala. According to press reports, Moseley and DeBusk are students at Birmingham-Southern College and Cloyd is a student at the University of Alabama.

Officials filed criminal complaints against the three men in connection with arson at nine Baptist church fires in February. Four of the nine were Southern Baptist. It is not known if officials believe the men are connected with a 10th church fire that was set in late February.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley called it a “good day for Alabama” and praised investigators for working together.

“[W]e believe this is an isolated incident,” Riley said at a news conference. “We don’t think that there is any type of conspiracy against organized religion or against the Baptists … [or] against religious beliefs in particular.”

He added: “Alabama and all of the faith-based communities in this state can rest a little easier.”

Five church fires were set late Feb. 2, followed by another four late Feb. 6.

According to a nine-page criminal complaint filed in U.S. district court, tire tracks found at the scene of the church fires eventually led investigators to the three men. The tire tracks were consistent with the tire tracks found on Cloyd’s green 2000 Toyota 4Runner, which is registered in his mother’s name, according to the complaint. Impressions of the tire tracks were found at six of the churches, the complaint said.

Cloyd told an unidentified witness in the complaint that he and Moseley “did it as a joke and it got out of hand,” the complaint said. Officials interviewed Moseley and DeBusk, both of whom admitted to being involved, according to the complaint.

“Moseley said that after they set fire to the first two churches they saw fire trucks driving by. Moseley said that after that, burning the other three churches became too spontaneous,” the complaint said.

The first two fires that first night apparently were to Rehobeth Baptist and Ashby Baptist, both Southern Baptist churches. Both were destroyed.

According to the document, all three men were involved the first night and had been hunting deer. DeBusk kicked in the door on two of the churches, the complaint said. On the final night, Feb. 6, only Moseley and Cloyd were involved, it said. Those four churches in the western part of the state “were burned as a diversion to throw investigators off,” the complaint said.

Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said the state convention has “full faith in the thoroughness of the law enforcement officials as to how they have handled the investigation process.”

“We continue to work toward the goal of helping the churches come to a full recovery from these terrible circumstances which they have experienced,” he said in a statement. “Our prayers are with these church families as they plan for the future. As believers we are confident that good can come from bad events. What others meant for harm, our Lord can use for His good purposes.”

Alabama Attorney General Troy King said he was “very, very proud” of law enforcement officials.

“What they have done is just good, old-fashioned police work,” he said. “Because of their work, what we have today is a reign of terror that has gripped rural Alabama and [has] riveted the eyes of the nation upon Alabama … coming to an end.

“… When this began, I predicted something that my granddaddy used to tell me, and that’s that a man’s evil deeds will find him out. Today, I believe that they have and I believe that justice will soon be had.”

If convicted, the men could face a minimum sentence of five years per church, according to U.S. Attorney Alice Martin. Jim Cavanaugh, regional director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said he felt relief for the churches of Alabama. While declining to answer specific questions about the case at this point, he said that officials are not treating it as a hate crime.

Said Riley: “The amount of investigative work that’s gone on in this arson investigation over the past few months has been truly incredible….This is due today to a lot of good people at the state, county, city, federal level all working together to bring this to a conclusion.”
With reporting by Grace Thornton, The Alabama Baptist

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