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 audacity of the arsonists stirred both panic and outrage. “Area Pastors Begin Vigilant Watches, Worried Their Churches Could Be Targeted,” read the front page of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “Area Christians Ready to Stand Ground in ‘Spiritual Battle,’” read another headline. Soon the hunt for the church burners—a probe that would span three counties and involve 75 federal agents, 50 investigators from the Department of Public Safety, and 30 Texas Rangers—had grown into the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history. More than one hundred troopers were called in to patrol the region’s towns and back roads, and at night, volunteers took turns keeping watch outside their churches.

There was no way to predict where or when the perpetrators would attack next; they struck at different times of day, on varying days of the week, and did not single out any particular race or denomination. Though anonymous calls came pouring into the East Texas Church Fires Tip Line and dozens of potential suspects were questioned, each lead turned out to be a dead end. Desperate for clues, undercover agents attended a prayer vigil across the street from the burned-out shell of First Church of Christ, Scientist, scanning the crowd for anyone who looked out of place. “It felt like we were being held hostage,” recalled Smith County district attorney Matt Bingham. “Everyone was holding their breath, wondering, ‘Is this going to happen again tonight? Will it be my church this time?’”

Two weeks passed uneventfully. Then, in the predawn hours of February 4, Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, in Wills Point, an hour’s drive west of Tyler, went up in flames. The church stood directly across the street from the local volunteer fire department. Four nights later, smoke was seen billowing from Dover Baptist Church, in a rural area northwest of Tyler. Not long after firefighters arrived, word came over the police scanner that another church, five miles down the road, Clear Spring Missionary Baptist, was ablaze. Texas Ranger Brent Davis and ATF special agent Larry Smith, the probe’s two lead investigators, raced from one fire to the next. Davis, a former trooper who had earned his Ranger badge two years earlier, and Smith, a veteran fire investigator who had worked the crash scene at the Pentagon after 9/11, looked on helplessly as Clear Spring’s roof buckled and fell, illuminating the night sky. Firefighters, who were still struggling to suppress the blaze at Dover, had not yet hauled their water and equipment to Clear Spring. “We had to stand there and watch it burn,” Smith said.

The two lawmen finally caught a lucky break on Valentine’s Day, when a customer reported some unusual graffiti in the rest­room of Atwoods Ranch and Home, a Tyler hardware and farm supply store. Etched into the metal partition of the handicapped stall was an inverted cross crowned with crudely drawn flames; above it, someone had scratched the words “Little Hope was arson.” Davis and Smith were elated: Because the blaze had been thought to be accidental,

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week