Three former college students pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal arson charges for burning nine churches in a series of blazes that alarmed rural congregations across Alabama.
Matthew Cloyd, Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk entered the guilty pleas to federal arson and conspiracy charges in the string of church fires set on two nights in February.
The three wore orange jail jumpsuits and leg chains as they stood before U.S. District Judge David Proctor, who told them they all face minimum seven-year sentences.
Cloyd, 21, and Moseley, 20, had a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that called for them to recommend a sentence of up to eight years and one month, but not less than seven years.
Debusk, 20, did not have an agreement on a sentence with his plea but decided to plead guilty "to help those congregations and others hurt by his behavior continue to heal," defense attorney Brett Bloomston said. A prosecutor said he expects Debusk to get a shorter sentence because he participated in only five fires.
Defense lawyer Tommy Spina said Cloyd "is incredibly remorseful, and he regrets creating this much misery in people's lives."
The three are also charged with state crimes in Bibb, Pickens, Greene and Sumter counties, including arson, burglary, criminal mischief and cruelty to animals for killing a cow. Defense attorneys have been discussing a similar plea deal with county prosecutors, but none has been reached.
Prosecutors said that the first fires occurred during a night of illegal hunting and underage drinking, and that the second fires were set to throw off investigators.
All the churches have either rebuilt or are in the process after receiving an outpouring of donations.
The Rev. James Posey suffered a stroke and had to step down as pastor after Morning Star Baptist Church in Eutaw was destroyed. Posey, who blames his stroke on the stress of the fire, was pleased to hear of the pleas.
"It sends a message out that you are not going to run amok and not desecrate and destroy property, especially God's church," he said.
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