Texas officials are investigating a recent string of church fires in the state. Amid widespread speculation on motive, investigators of past church fires warn against jumping to conclusions.
Authorities are desperately looking for motives to help them find the suspected arsonists behind at least eight of 11 church fires in central and east Texas since the beginning of this year.
But a chief investigator of the Alabama church burnings in 2006 has some advice for his Texas counterparts: Go slow, tune out the public din, and let the evidentiary crumbs lead the way.
“It’s like the old saying, expectation is greater than the realization,” says Alabama State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk, who was the case manager during the investigation into the burning of nine Baptist churches in Alabama in 2006. “Iinvestigators] try to keep an open mind and allow evidence to steer where we go and what we look at … whereas the public tends to sensationalize what they perceive to be motive.”
In the Alabama case, because several of the churches belonged to black congregations – a sensitive issue in the state, where church bombings were common during the civil rights era – it was widely assumed that white supremacists were responsible.
Instead, three white college students from the Birmingham suburbs were found to be behind the fires. Officials said the fires were a “joke” that spun out of control during their deer hunting trips. All three have nine more years left on their prison sentences.
So far, the apparent theft of nonreligious items from several of the Texas churches has given investigators from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) some clues as to motive. ATF spokesman Thomas Crowley has also told news outlets that there’s evidence that the fires were set by a group of people, not a single person.