Three College Students Held in Alabama Church Arsons Three college students have been arrested in connection with a string of rural Alabama church arsons. Five of the churches were destroyed and four were damaged. One of the students reportedly says the first few fires were started as a joke and the others were meant to throw off investigators.

Three College Students Held in Alabama Church Arsons

Three College Students Held in Alabama Church Arsons

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Three college students have been arrested in connection with a string of rural Alabama church arsons. Five of the churches were destroyed and four were damaged. One of the students reportedly says the first few fires were started as a joke and the others were meant to throw off investigators.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Three college students were arrested today in connection with a string of church fires in Alabama over the past month. At least nine churches were burned to the ground or damaged in arson attacks. Federal, state and local officials gathered this afternoon to talk about the arrests. Troy King is Alabama's attorney general.

TROY KING: When this began, I predicted something that my granddaddy used to tell me, which is that a man's evil deeds will find him out. Today I believe that they have, and I believe that justice will soon be had.

BLOCK: NPR's Kathy Lohr has been following the story, and, Kathy, what are the charges against these young men?

KATHY LOHR: The three are students. Matthew Lee Cloyd, Russell Debusk and Benjamin Moseley. And they're being charged with maliciously damaging and destroying or attempting to destroy a building by fire. They're also charged with a second count in connection with the Ashby Baptist Church, which is in Bibb County, that was on February 2nd. But authorities did hold out the possibility of other charges being filed in this case.

BLOCK: And what did law enforcement officials have to say about any possible motives for these fires?

LOHR: You know, this case has confused a number of people. Churches, all of the churches are rural. They have both black and predominantly white congregations. All are Baptist churches, and many have wondered why anyone would burn down a church. Today, authorities gave us a clue that this whole thing may have started as a prank. According to court records, when investigators interviewed the suspects, at least one of them, Benjamin Moseley, said that the three traveled to Bibb County on Feb. 2nd when the five churches were set on fire. And apparently, after they set fire to the first two churches there, they saw fire trucks driving by and Moseley said that burning the other three churches became, what he called, too spontaneous. So he said they traveled to Western, Alabama later and burned four other churches.

Now Moseley says that the four other churches were burned as a diversion to throw investigators off. But he acknowledged that that diversion obviously did not work. And today the ATF special agent said that that points to an excitement or a thrill motive rather than racial targeting.

BLOCK: You mentioned that these churches were both, had both black and white congregations. The three young men arrested were white, as I understand it.

LOHR: That's correct. They were white. They were, all three were from Alabama. Not outsiders as some had suspected. They're all 19 and 20 years old. Two of the three were theater majors. Benjamin Moseley and Russell Debusk. They're from Birmingham Southern College, students from this private Methodist liberal arts school in Birmingham. And Matthew Cloyd was a student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham who just was transferred there in the fall of 2005.

BLOCK: What led to today's arrests of these three young men?

LOHR: Probably the most clear thing that led to today's arrests were tire tracks. A clear tire track, which led police to suspect that a specific vehicle, which was Matthew Cloyd's truck, was there at the scene. I saw the set of tire tracks which was left by a truck near the side of a church, Spring Valley Baptist Church, when I was in Alabama working on this story.

And police and the church pastors there said that those tracks were left by whoever ever started the fire. And they made the prints of that tire. Ultimately that, traced that to Cloyd's vehicle which was a green Toyota 4Runner. And that truck matched the description of the vehicle that police were looking for, and that tire track.

So when authorities talked about the arrests today, they said that they had a thousand leads and 500 vehicles that they were searching through and 1,300 people in their database. And what they, but what the special agent in charge of the ATF, James Cavanaugh, said that it came down to, to solving this case, was persistence and patience and just pushing through those leads that finally forced a break in this case, which is unprecedented cooperation among law enforcement officers all through local, state and federal agencies.

BLOCK: Kathy when you've been in these communities where these churches have been burned, what have people said about the impact this has had in those communities?

LOHR: Yeah, in most of these communities, these churches are the centers, the hubs of life there. And it has been really devastating. And I think people want to, they wanted who was, you know, doing this. And they wanted to know how they could pick up and move on and I think these arrests will really help them move forward there.

BLOCK: NPR's Kathy Lohr thanks very much.

LOHR: Thank you.

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