3 Students Held in Church Fires Set in Alabama
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March 9, 2006
By RICK LYMAN
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
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,
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
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
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 Facebook.com, 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
"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
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
Jim Noles contributed reporting from Birmingham, Ala., for this
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company