SMITH COUNTY, Texas (BP)–Two more Baptist churches, less than two miles apart, burned Monday night, making a total of 11 East Texas churches damaged or destroyed by fire since the New Year and seven confirmed as arsons, authorities say.
The latest buildings consumed were declared a total loss despite the response from four volunteer fire departments.
Investigators from the Smith County Fire Marshal’s office and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were at Dover Baptist Church and Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Smith County Feb. 9 trying to determine the cause of the fires. Because arson has been confirmed in seven other church burnings in the region, ATF special agent Tom Crowley said it is the suspected cause of the latest fire, but confirmation will take a few days.
Federal investigators have, once again, upped the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect to $25,000 from an earlier figure of $10,000. Ironically, the increased reward was due to be announced Tuesday before the additional fires, Crowley said. Anyone with information about the fires is asked to call the ATF at 903-590-1475.
Mary Thompson, administrative assistant to Smith County Fire Marshall Jim Seaton, said the first fire was reported at 8:33 p.m. by a resident who lives across the street from Dover Baptist Church, near Tyler. About an hour later the fire at Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church was reported.
Volunteer firefighters from stations in Chapel Hill, Dixie, Lindale, and Red Spring responded to the calls. Due to the circumstances surrounding the other fires, Thompson said it is now standard procedure for representatives from ATF and the fire marshal’s office to respond to church fires.
“That’s just a given,” she said.
Crowley, based in the ATF’s Dallas office, said the latest fires are possibly associated with a string of church blazes set since Jan. 1. There have been seven confirmed arsons — three in Athens, two in Tyler, one in Lindale, and one in Wills Point. Each of the fires was started from inside the churches and representatives from some of the churches reported items were stolen prior to the buildings being set on fire.
An arsonist’s attack on a church in the central Texas city of Temple is being investigated as well. Crowley said the ATF office in Houston is investigating that blaze and the two agencies are conferring to determine whether or not the torchings are related.
Fires in Canton and Martin’s Mill are also under investigation.
The ATF is directing the multi-county investigation and is following up on a number of leads.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.