This is incomprehensible -- setting fire to churches is a joke that got out of hand?
BIRMINGHAM, Ala -- Three college students were arrested Wednesday in a string of nine rural Alabama church arsons last month that allegedly were set first as "a joke" and later as a diversion, federal agents said.
Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared in federal court Wednesday and were ordered held on church arson charges pending a hearing Friday.
Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was arrested later Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis said. Davis said he learned of Cloyd's arrest from the FBI. Calls to the FBI about Cloyd's arrest were not immediately returned. Cloyd previously attended Birmingham-Southern.
"While all three are entitled to have their day in court, we are very hopeful that this is the end to the fear that has been rampant in West Alabama," Davis said.
The arrests came in a probe of arsons at five Baptist churches in Bibb County south of Birmingham on Feb. 3 and four Baptist churches in west Alabama on Feb. 7. The federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency had made the arsons its top priority, with scores of federal agents joining state and local officers.
Moseley admitted to the arsons after his arrest Wednesday, according to an ATF affidavit presented at the initial court appearance.
The affidavit said Moseley told agents that he, Cloyd and Debusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd's Toyota sport utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it "as a joke and it got out of hand," according to the affidavit.
Moseley also told agents the four fires in west Alabama were set "as a diversion to throw investigators off," an attempt that "obviously did not work," the affidavit said.
The three students arrested Wednesday are white and all either attend or previously were enrolled at Birmingham-Southern, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college.
Five of the churches were destroyed and four were damaged, including one in which congregants, alerted during the night that churches were afire, arrived just as the apparent arsonists were leaving. That fire, quickly put out, had been set in the sanctuary near the altar -- a pattern in the other church arsons in Bibb County and west Alabama.
Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church at Brierfield, a Bibb County church destroyed in the Feb. 3 arson, said the congregation has been apprehensive about whether the arsonists had some "political or religious agenda."
"I want to find out the motivation of these young men. Young folks get some crazy ideas," he said.
He said he had spoken to federal agents and understood the suspects were promising students from good families.
"We really are concerned about them as people," he said. "I would just like to know what they were thinking."
(The original version of this story described two of them as "theater students" but "theater" was later dropped, and a subsequent story describes them as "aspiring actors known around campus as pranksters.")
Update:Ed Brayton catches a leader of the religious right attempting to exploit the church fires.
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