Federal authorities believe a spate of church fires in eastern Texas is the work of a serial arsonist or group of arsonists who have evaded law enforcement for more than a month.
Clay Alexander of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives expressed frustration a day after fires destroyed two more churches near Tyler. The agency believes eight fires reported since Jan. 1 were the work of at least one arsonist.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Alexander, head of the agency’s office in Tyler. “We’re not getting a lot of sleep. We’re tired. We’re frustrated that this is continuing to happen. But we remain strong in our belief that we’re going to find who did this.”
The ATF deemed the investigation urgent on Jan. 11, when two churches were torched in nearby Athens, he said. Seven churches in eastern Texas and one in central Texas have been set ablaze so far.
The two fires reported late on Feb. 8 haven’t been ruled arsons but were being investigated as such. Agents who were working last weekend’s Super Bowl in Miami were brought in to help, Alexander said.
Alexander offered few details about the most recent blazes, which broke out at churches about three miles apart in a rural area northwest of Tyler, which is about 85 miles southeast of Dallas.
“We just don’t want to discuss that at this point, what we know as far as the same type of things that are happening,” he said. “We feel that quite a few of these are related.”
Nearby fire departments have been on high alert, and firefighters from throughout the area responded quickly to the Monday blazes at the Dover Baptist Church and Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said Smith County Assistant Fire Marshal Oren Hale.
There were no injuries reported in either fire, but the damage appeared to be extensive, said Hale, who worked at both fire scenes until about 3 a.m. Feb. 9.
“They were big ones. They’re not to the ground, but they’ll be total losses,” he said.
Assistant Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson, who was first on the scene at Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, said flames were coming out of the building’s roof when she got there. The back door of the church had been broken, she said.
The church’s red brick walls were all that remained. Its pastor, Brandon Owens, said he planned to meet with his congregation of about 50 to figure out where they would worship Sunday. The church also burned eight years ago when it was struck by lightning.
“I will be preaching,” Owens said. “We will be OK. We’ll still be going.”
Several people gathered Feb. 9 near the still-smoldering Dover church. Most of sanctuary’s roof had collapsed, but the steeple was still standing.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said 70-year-old Floyd Moseley, a retired Tyler firefighter who used to belong to the church and whose father helped build it.
The church only has about 70 members, with regular Sunday attendance about half of that.
Dover Baptist recently took precautions because of so many church fires, trustee Albert Valadez said. The staff barred the church doors and installed “dummy” inoperable video cameras above the main doors because the church couldn’t afford real video equipment.
“It’s devastating,” Pastor Carl Samples said. “It definitely tests your faith, but I know beyond every doubt that God can see us through.”
Rusk County Sheriff Danny Pirtle asked to meet with area church leaders on Thursday to discuss safety measures.
Associated Press Writer John McFarland in Dallas contributed to this report.
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