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2009 - 3 Students Held in Church Fires Set in Alabama

Three college students from the prosperous suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., were arrested yesterday in the burning of nine Baptist churches last month in rural Alabama. Federal officials said the fires were a "joke" that spun out of control while the students were deer hunting.

After initially setting ablaze five churches in the county just south of Birmingham, two students burned four additional churches days later in more remote areas, hoping to divert investigators, the authorities said.

Two students, Benjamin N. Moseley and Russell L. DeBusk Jr., both 19, from Birmingham-Southern College, were arrested on the campus after admitting their involvement in the fires to federal agents, officials said.

The agents were led to the students by tire tracks at several burned churches, officials said.

Several hours later, the authorities arrested Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, a student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, whose mother owns the Toyota 4Runner that left the tracks, federal agents said in an affidavit with the criminal complaint.

The identities surprised investigators, who had speculated that the fires were the work of people familiar with the remote rural roads where the blazes were set, not products of the Birmingham upper middle class, one the son of a doctor and another of a county constable.

"This is just so hard to believe," said the state fire marshal, Richard W. Montgomery. "My profile on these suspects is shot all to heck and back."

At a mass gathering on the Birmingham-Southern campus on Wednesday afternoon, the college president, David Pollick promised that the institution would help rebuild the churches.

"Students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged," Dr. Pollick said. "We share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represented the heart and soul of their communities."

From the beginning, investigators had theorized that the fires had no racial motive, as there had been for many church fires throughout the Southeast in the mid-90's. And that, they said, was borne out.

Four churches that burned early on Feb. 3 in Bibb County, about an hour south of Birmingham, had predominantly white congregations, and one was black. All four churches burned on the morning of Feb. 7 in an even more remote stretch more than 90 minutes southwest of Birmingham had black congregations.

Officials have concluded that a church fire on Feb. 11 in another rural corner of Alabama was not connected.

"We believe this is an isolated incident," Gov. Bob Riley said. "We don't think there is any kind of organized conspiracy against religion or against the Baptists."

As a result of the arrests, Mr. Riley said, the dozens of parishioners who have been nervously standing guard over their own churches for the last month "can rest a little easier."

Mr. DeBusk and Mr. Moseley appeared briefly before Magistrate Judge Robert R. Armstrong Jr. in the Hugo L. Black Federal Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. They were slender and pale, with dark, floppy hair. Mr. DeBusk wore blue jeans and an orange hooded sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, Mr. Moseley a blue polo shirt and jeans.

Mr. Cloyd appeared separately, after his surrender.

All three were held in custody, at least until a bail hearing tomorrow.

Mr. Moseley and Mr. DeBusk were active in the theater program at their college, acting and helping backstage. This year, they performed in "Extremities," and Mr. Moseley was to appear in the spring in "Young Zombies in Love."

The Hilltop News, the campus newspaper, published yesterday under the headline "Theater Students to Appear in Film" an article that started, "BSC students Russ DeBusk and Ben Moseley are on the road to stardom."

The students were planning to appear in a locally produced independent film about a young man played by Mr. DeBusk who struggled to motivate his slacker friends.

Jenna Wright, who had worked on theatrical productions with Mr. Moseley, said she had a hard time connecting someone who would burn churches with the talented young man whom she knew.

"I am just completely in shock," Ms. Wright said. "This is just so sad. He had so much potential."

The three suspects had their own pages on, a networking Web site for college and high-school students.

In the area on Mr. Moseley's page where visitors can post messages, alongside more than 12 expressing shock at the arrests and promising to pray for the accused, was one that Mr. Cloyd posted on Jan. 9. It read:

"To my dearest friend Moseley:

"The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless, the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil! Only one problem stands in our way. I got a new cellphone for Christmas and I no longer have your number, so send it to me and evil shall once again come to pass!

"May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!"

According to an affidavit signed by Walker Johnson, a special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, analysis of the tire tracks led agents on Tuesday to the home of Michael and Kimberly Cloyd on the south side of Birmingham.

The tracks matched a set of tires that were specially ordered for Ms. Cloyd's 4Runner. Ms. Cloyd told agents that her son Matthew was the principal driver of the S.U.V.

Ms. Cloyd told agents that her son had told her he had not set the fires but that he knew who did, the affidavit said, adding that Dr. Cloyd related that his son told him on Tuesday that he had been present at the arsons and knew who set them.

A witness, unnamed in the affidavit, told agents that Matthew Cloyd said he and Mr. Moseley "had done something stupid," adding that it was something that Mr. Moseley had done "as a joke, and it got out of hand."

Agents later interviewed Mr. Moseley who, they said, admitted setting the five fires in Bibb County with Mr. Cloyd and Mr. DeBusk.

"Moseley stated that after they set fire to the first two churches, they saw fire trucks driving by" Mr. Johnson's affidavit said. "Moseley said that, after that, burning the other three churches became too spontaneous."

Agents said Mr. Moseley told them that just he and Mr. Cloyd had participated in the second group of fires, four days later.

"These four churches were burned as a diversion, to throw investigators off," Mr. Johnson wrote in his affidavit. "Moseley said the diversion obviously did not work."

Mr. DeBusk admitted being present at the five arsons on Feb. 3, as well as kicking in the doors of two churches. He said the three men had been shooting deer in Mr. Cloyd's S.U.V. before the fires.

At a news conference in the hangar at the Tuscaloosa County Airport that was the headquarters for the investigation, the special agent in charge for the firearms bureau, James Cavanaugh, said officials had sifted through more than 1,000 leads involving nearly 500 vehicles and 1,300 individuals before the unexpected break that led them to the Cloyds.



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