Feds Say Church Fires No. 1 Priority

Sumter County Sheriff Johnny Hatter, left, and Alabama Governor Bob Riley examine the charred remains of the Galilee Baptist Church Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006 in Panola, Ala. The church was one of four destroyed by fire in west Alabama Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
AP
Flames were visible near the pulpit of Morning Star Baptist Church and smoke was pouring out its windows when Johnny Archibald arrived to a grimly familiar scene in Alabama.

Archibald, who lives near the Boligee church, said that when he saw his church in flames Tuesday he immediately thought of the fires that consumed five other churches last week.

"I don't know what's going on," he said. "It's just sickness."

Morning Star Baptist and three other rural, predominately black churches in West Alabama were damaged or destroyed by fires Tuesday, and five mostly white churches were attacked last week, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Acosta. Because the attacks appear to equally target black and white churches, authorities say they don't appear to be racially motivated.

Authorities are searching for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle with two white males inside reports CBS News affiliate WHNT.

FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators were working on the assumption that all nine of the Alabama church fires were connected.

"Clearly there's a suspected link," Burrus told The Associated Press from Washington, D.C. "Common sense tells you there is a clear indication these fires are going to be linked."

Archibald, from Morning Star, pulled a door of the sanctuary just as it was going up in flames, to have some sort of evidence Acosta reports. Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac told CBS News that a shoe print was found on the door that was likely kicked open by arsonists.

All nine churches are Baptist, the dominant faith in the area. Four in Bibb County are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, while the other five are not.

At three of the latest burned churches, the fires appeared to erupt in the sanctuary near the altar, according to church members and authorities. Two of the fires were found to be arson.

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

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