Church Burners

It was one of the most perplexing crimes anyone could recall—ten churches in East Texas torched in six weeks. But even more mysterious was the fact that the arsonists were two local boys, raised as Baptists, who had met in Sunday school.
Church Burners
Tyler’s First Church of Christ, Scientist in flames.
Photograph by Jamie Maldonado

The first church to go up in flames was Little Hope Baptist Church, outside the East Texas town of Canton, on New Year’s Day 2010. The small, red-brick church overlooked a quiet stretch of farmland, accessible only by way of meandering back roads. At around nine o’clock that morning, a parishioner who lived nearby spotted fire venting from the roof of the fellowship hall. Thick, black smoke drifted over Little Hope, across the neighboring pastures, and into the cold winter air. The local fire department raced to the scene, but the hall, which had been built by church members more than half a century earlier, was quickly consumed, its walls left scorched and blackened by the blaze.

Two hours later, flames were seen rising from the roof of Faith Church of Athens, twenty miles away. The vaulted sanctuary and everything inside—pews, a grand piano, Bibles, and a stained-glass cross—were destroyed. As Pastor Leon Wallace walked through the ruins, he could see that someone had ransacked the place; his desk had been riffled through, and $2 had been taken from the Sunday school room. Although the blaze at Little Hope was thought by the Van Zandt County fire marshal to have been sparked by a faulty electrical box, the cause of the fire at Faith Church was determined to be arson. That Sunday, shaken churchgoers crowded into Faith Church’s youth room to pray, wondering who might have been responsible and why.

Then, ten days later, on the night of January 11, smoke was seen pouring out of an open doorway at Grace Community Church, not far from Athens’s main square. Flames quickly engulfed the sanctuary, leaving it completely gutted. As firefighters struggled to put out the blaze, they received news that Lake Athens Baptist Church, six miles away, was also on fire. Pastor John E. Green watched as the sanctuary where he had baptized his great-grandchildren and led the funeral service for his wife of fifty years burned to the ground. “I knew God was going to use this to strengthen and resolve us,” Green said. “But we were fearful too. No one knew how many more churches were going to be destroyed.” In the damp clay soil, two sets of shoe prints were found: one that matched a pair of sneakers, the other, a pair of work boots.

The Texas Rangers were called in, as were federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but over the following week, three more churches were torched, two in Tyler and one in nearby Lindale. Unlike the previous targets, these churches were located in well-traveled areas. First Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, stood at the heart of Tyler’s historic Azalea District, on Broadway, the main thoroughfare in town. Some of the churches had been elaborately staged before being set alight. Bibles, hymnals, and pew cushions were used as kindling and were stacked around pulpits, under pianos, and inside baptisteries.

In a largely rural region where faith is an integral part of everyday life, the

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