The three were jailed on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to a single church — Ashby Baptist. If convicted, each count carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Additional charges are possible, authorities said.
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen expects the men to receive serious sentences if they're ultimately convicted.
"I think prosecutors and the judge are going to see the case as a perfect vehicle to send a message that this sort of conduct, whatever the motives, just won't be tolerated," says Cohen. "And I think that push is going to be more powerful than any argument that they get a lot of leniency because of their age or anything else."
Two of the suspects were identified as Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College. Matthew Lee Cloyd, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also was arrested.
Acquaintances said DeBusk and Moseley were both amateur actors who were known as pranksters and dreamed of becoming stars. They performed in campus plays and appeared in a documentary film.
The arson attacks apparently began when the three got into Cloyd's sport utility vehicle for a night of deer shooting in Bibb County on Feb. 2, according to Walker Johnson, a federal agent who investigated the fires.
Moseley told agents that the three set fire to five Baptist churches in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it "as a joke and it got out of hand."
Moseley also told agents the four fires in west Alabama were set four days later "as a diversion to throw investigators off," an attempt that "obviously did not work," the court papers said.
A judge ordered the three held until a hearing Friday.