Sunday, February 14, 2010

Churches In Texas Struck By Arson

*Just a note. Hate crimes can be religious in nature and not just racial, as one of the comments in the article below eludes to regarding motivation. These churches do seem to have a common denominator in that they are characterized as Christian. Yet some thieves tend to set specific targets, but you have to wonder about this M.O.

10 Texas Church Fires Under Investigation
By William M. Welch, USA TODAY

Pastor Carl Samples says his flock's faith hasn't wavered, even after their sanctuary was destroyed in the latest in a string of East Texas church fires that authorities say were deliberately set.

"I think it's drawn us closer together. It's just kind of increased our faith," said Samples, whose Dover Baptist Church was a total loss but for the steeple that survived the blaze Monday night.

Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined state and local fire officials this week in sifting through the charred remains for clues at Dover and at another church 3 miles away, Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, which was reported on fire a short time later. Both churches serve a rural area outside Tyler, Texas.

Tom Crowley, spokesman for the agency at its Dallas office, said investigators concluded Wednesday that both fires were acts of arson.

Clay Alexander, head of the agency's Tyler office, said the agency believes eight other church fires reported since January were caused by one or more arsonists.

"We're not getting a lot of sleep. We're tired. We're frustrated that this is continuing to happen. But we remain strong in our belief that we're going to find who did this," Alexander said

There were no injuries reported in either fire but damage was extensive, Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale said.

"They were big ones. They're not to the ground, but they'll be total losses," he said.

A reward for information about who set the fires was raised to $25,000 from $10,000 on Tuesday, Crowley said. Anyone with information was asked to call a toll-free number, 888-ATF-FIRE.

"We've got a lot of leads and keep getting more leads" on the earlier fires, Crowley said.

The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday that Crowley said that though no motive is known, the fires could be set to cover up another crime.

Non-religious items have been stolen from some of the churches, he told the newspaper.

"It doesn't have to be a hate crime," Crowley said, noting that a variety of denominations and non-denominational churches were targets. Most, but not all, have predominantly white congregations.

Samples said Dover Baptist Church has 35 to 40 members who regularly attended services in the church, which was originally a wood-frame structure with a brick veneer added in the 1970s.

He said a congregation member who lives near the church saw flames and alerted him and authorities.

"It's pretty devastating to witness an event like this," Samples said. "It gives you an empty feeling, a sense of being violated."

Other area churches have volunteered to host Sunday and Wednesday night services for the congregation, he said.

"We've had an outpouring of Christian brotherhood," Samples said.