Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19-year-old theater students at Birmingham-Southern College, were arrested this week along with 20-year-old Matthew Lee Cloyd, who was studying pre-med at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Throughout the monthlong investigation, authorities said alcohol could have led to a warped bravado that sparked the arsons, and initial interviews with the suspects bore out the theory, according to one officer.
However, deputy state fire marshal Ed Paulk, who was involved in the investigation, said he did not know if alcohol was a direct factor.
"We were told by official sources ... that seemingly some drinking, some night hunting, was ultimately what led to all of this," said Randy Youngblood, the campus police chief at Birmingham-Southern College.
The three were scheduled to appear in court Friday on whether they can remain jailed on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to Ashby Baptist Church, one of nine churches that was either destroyed or damaged in early morning fires on Feb. 3 and Feb. 7. Each count of a conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Additional charges are possible, authorities have said. If convicted, these young men face up to 45 years in prison, CBS News correspondent Jim Acosta reports.
Federal and state authorities have not commented on a possible motive, beyond evidence that an apparent prank spun out of control. Defense attorneys have not commented either, but say the fires were not crimes of hate.
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."
The students came from privileged backgrounds. Cloyd is the son of a doctor and DeBusk attended college on a theater scholarship after being voted "most dramatic" by his high school classmates in 2004.