Behind every crime lies a mystery, but this one has many. In just a period of weeks last year, ten churches across East Texas were set in flames, burned to ash, leaving little to no evidence behind. Seventy-five federal agents, fifty Department of Public Safety investigators, and thirty Texas Rangers were brought in to track down the arsonists. As the weeks went on, and church after church was burned, one clue would eventually lead investigators to two unlikely suspects: Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister. What would drive two childhood friends who met at Sunday school to commit such crimes? Executive editor Pamela Colloff revisited the crime scenes, researched the case file, and interviewed Jason and Daniel and the people who knew them in an attempted to answer that very question. Here’s the story behind the story.
How did you originally hear about the church fires? What sparked a deep enough interest in it for you to want to write a feature about it?
I read about the church fires in the newspaper, just like everybody else, and I immediately thought that it would be a fascinating magazine story. Reading the daily newspaper coverage, I had so many questions. Why would someone want to burn down a church? What message was trying to be conveyed to the public by the arsonists? How could anyone manage to repeatedly burn down churches—and not get caught—when the area was flooded with so many local, state, and national law enforcement officers?
What surprised you most during the process of writing and reporting this story?
I interviewed both Jason and Daniel, but my interviews with Jason were much more extensive. Jason and I spoke numerous times over the course of a month and exchanged letters while I was working on this story. Although he was candid about his life before these crimes, and shared a great deal of detail about his childhood and young adulthood, he was utterly unable to provide any explanation as to why he had burned down ten churches—other than that Chantix (the anti-smoking medication he was on at the time) was to blame. Ultimately, after reading the case file, and seeing how meticulously these fires had been set, this was an unsatisfying answer to me. Even if I accepted Jason’s premise that Chantix had lowered his impulse control, that did not explain why, again and again, he was drawn to burn down churches, in particular. At the end of our interviews I told him that I did not feel that I had any greater understanding of why he had committed these crimes than I had before I began interviewing him. Ultimately, talking to his family and friends gave me much greater insight into Jason than talking to Jason himself.
How did you go about getting Jason and Daniel to talk to you?
I explained to them that my story would be coming out in our May issue, long after they entered their pleas. (They entered their final pleas in February.) So that helped. And I think they both wanted to explain themselves. Fairly or unfairly, they had been demonized by the local media. Because they were not giving interviews while their case was ongoing, they had not been able to shape the narrative.
The difficulty in telling this story is that your two main subjects are confined behind bars. Explain the process.
It was really difficult, because the Smith County jail did not allow me to interview them in person. They were only allowed to call me collect, for twelve minutes at time. But they had to wait in line to use a pay phone, and there was no telling when the phone would be available. So I spent a few weeks just sitting by the phone and waiting. My friend and fellow staff writer Katy Vine was nice enough to sit by the phone whenever I had to run to the bathroom, so that I didn’t have to worry about missing a call!
In telling the story, you had to travel to many of these churches. What did you discover on these visits?
That’s one part of my reporting for this story that I feel was deficient. I wanted to spend more time getting to know the congregations that were affected by these fires, but thanks to a string of winter storms earlier this year, I had to postpone—and then cut short—three different trips to Tyler. I wish that I had been able to talk to more pastors and church members before sitting down to write.
In every story, there is the turning point when things go wrong and are made extremely difficult to go back and correct. What do you think each of those individual moments were for Jason and Daniel?
That’s a great question. I think both of them battled with depression, which meant that they were not always making smart decisions. But for both of them, I think they took the wrong message away from their respective crises of faith. Many people go through the difficult situations they went through—the death of a parent, or a terrible breakup—but they recover. Jason and Daniel didn’t, and I think their misery fed off of one another’s.
What major or minor character in this story most surprised you? How so?
Christy McAllister was in an unimaginably difficult position in this case. I don’t think that any of us would ever want to find ourselves in the situation that she was in, where she had to uphold the law and fulfill her job responsibilities all while knowing that her co-workers were doing everything they could to send her brother away to prison.
Every character in a tragedy has a downfall. What do you think were the Achilles’ heels of Jason and Daniel individually?
I think Jason thought he was smarter than everyone else, and that led him to make mistakes that eventually resulted in his capture. And I think Daniel was too willing to go wherever Jason led him.
In the end of your story Daniel asks for everyone to forgive him and Jason. Do you believe readers will believe him?
I don’t know if readers will believe him. But personally, I was struck by the fact that Daniel, for the most part, took responsibility for his actions and made an effort to apologize to the congregations that had been affected by this crime.