Arson, forced entry evidence found at church fire scenes
By Jane Clark Summers
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
KOSSUTH - Fires were deliberately set and there was evidence of forced entry at two black churches destroyed by flames Monday night in the Kossuth community. Arson was also ruled in an attempted burning at a white church nearby.
"These two fire scenes are arson" and appear to be linked, said Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Birmingham, Ala., division of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency.
"They were deliberately set by human hands with a criminal purpose," he said. "They are deliberate, sinister and evil attacks on three houses of worship here in Alcorn County."
The first fire was reported at 9:11 p.m. Monday at Central Grove Missionary Baptist Church on County Road 614. The second was called in at 9:28 p.m. about three miles away at Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church on County Road 618.
On Tuesday morning, a plastic bottle containing a flammable liquid was discovered near the rear of the Kossuth Church of Christ on Highway 2 and a small patch of grass had been burned. There were signs of an attempted break-in at the white congregation's church. That fire, too, has been ruled arson.
ATF agents collected 18 samples at Central Grove and eight samples at Mt. Pleasant. Although the origins of the fires were identified, that information was not released.
There is no doubt that there is sufficient evidence that can be presented in a court of law to prove that arson was involved in all three cases, Cavanaugh said. This is a significant development, he said. In many of the 40 fires reported at black churches in the Southeast during the last 18 months, the causes of the fires have not been determined, he said. In order to prosecute, proof of a crime has to be shown, he said.
Profit has been ruled out as a motive. Central Grove was not insured. Mt. Pleasant, valued at about $200,000, was insured for only $100,000 for the building and contents. There was no damage at the third church.
Lt. Sammy Pickens with the Mississippi Highway Patrol Criminal Investigation Bureau said this is not a black and white issue, but rather a community issue. "There have been no signs that there are any racial problems," he said.
Avery Rollins, supervisor of the Civil Rights Division of the FBI Office in Jackson, said there does not appear to be a conspiracy involved. Since Jan. 1, 1990, there have been 52 church fires in Mississippi and a large number were accidental, he said. About 30 of the 52 fires were either arson or undetermined. Historically, the number of arson fires has been equally evident between black and white churches, Rollins said.
Alcorn County Sheriff Jimmy Taylor made a plea for public assistance in helping crack the case. "Someone out there knows the people who are responsible for this," he said. "We need those people to come forward. These fires have got to stop."
Deputy State Fire Marshal Mike Ivy said public information will greatly assist the agents who continue to work "from can to can't day and night."
District Attorney John R. Young said he appreciates the influx of state and federal agents who are assisting with the probe. "There are state and federal laws broken," he said. "I fully intend to prosecute them (perpetrators) here in Alcorn County. I want to give them a ride to Parchman."
The maximum state penalty is the same as for federal violators: 10 years. In addition to 10 years on each count of arson, there is a maximum of seven years for breaking and entering, Young said. In these cases, it is possible the violators could spend 14 to 15 years in jail on each count, he said.
If more than one person was involved in planning the fires, conspiracy charges could be filed against the perpetrators.
Rollins said the individuals responsible could also face charges under Civil Rights statutes.
The reward fund for information leading to arrest and conviction totals $8,500. The city of Corinth contributed $2,500 to the original reward of $5,000 raised by the Alliance. The State Fire Marshal's Office posted the $1,000 reward offered in all arson cases.
The Resurrection Fund initiated by a biracial Christian organization, Lighthouse Foundation, reached more than $27,000 Thursday. A phone bank was set up Thursday with volunteers soliciting pledges to help with rebuilding the churches.
Billboards, advertising the fund, shouted a recent plea from President Clinton, "This has got to stop!"