Feds Probe Links In Ala. Church Fires

A volunteer Firefighters from the West Greene Fire Department sprays water on the smoldering remains of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee, Ala., in Greene County, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. Four more houses of worship were destroyed or damaged along country roads in Alabama, after after five were set ablaze in arsons four days ago. Investigators said the latest fires at four churches, all started overnight. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
AP
Four more Baptist churches burned across the Alabama countryside, as FBI investigators worked on the assumption that the fires were linked to a string of five blazes less than a week ago that were ruled arson.

Church member Johnny Archibald said smoke was pouring from Morning Star Baptist in Boligee when he arrived around daybreak. The church was burned down to its foundation Tuesday, leaving only the front steps and handrail still standing.

"They had kicked the door in," he said. "Evidently they had set the pulpit on fire and went out the front door."

Another church was destroyed, and the other two were damaged.

Tuesday's fires took place at churches off rural roads, about 10 to 20 miles apart. They were in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where the five other churches were burned early Friday.

That string of fires destroyed three rural Baptist churches and damaged two others in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham. The

were set "as fast as they could drive from one location to the next," Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said.

The nine churches that burned included both white and black congregations.

Authorities have no suspects or motive, FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said in an interview with The Associated Press in Washington, D.C.

Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said investigators were pursuing several leads in last week's fires, but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."

Rich Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said more than 50 agents are now assigned to the investigation in Alabama.

"This is our No. 1 priority nationally," he said.

The fire that damaged Dancy First Baptist Church early Tuesday appeared to be arson, said Sheriff David Abston. He said volunteer firefighters responded to a burglar alarm that went off at 5:13 a.m.

Investigators got tire impressions from the mud of a dirt road near Galilee Baptist, one of the churches destroyed Tuesday.

Agents investigating the five Bibb County fires said Tuesday that they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle in connection with the blazes.

Members of Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield told The Associated Press in interviews that they saw a dark Nissan Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to put out a fire shortly after 4 a.m. Friday.

Ingram said there have been 59 church fires in Alabama in the past five years, including the nine reported in the past four days, and 19 were ruled arsons.

Archibald said the side door of Morning Star Baptist had a footprint on it, and he and another man used an ax to remove the door for potential use as evidence. At least two of the Bibb County churches also had kicked-in doors, church members said.

The FBI is looking into whether fires are a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, said FBI Special Agent Raymond Zicarelli in Birmingham. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered in the probe.