ATF increases reward in church arson fires

February 9, 2010 8:52:13 PM PST
Authorities in east Texas are on the hunt for a possible arsonist following a rash of fires targeting churches. Investigators are sweetening the pot for information that leads to an arrest. Nine churches have burned this year in east Texas, two of them on Monday night, and one church in central Texas was declared arson.

Investigators spent Tuesday going through the debris and analyzing it at the first of two scenes where churches burned near Tyler in east Texas. ATF agents say they are increasing manpower.

There is yellow tape across the front doors of two more east Texas churches on Tuesday.

"I'm hurt. This is home. I'm hurt," said church member Margaret Moore.

Whether members of the congregations saw the shell of what is left of their church home or watched it burn last night there is tremendous shock,

"I went from being a baby all the way to adulthood in this church. I can't believe it. It's awful," said church member Cheryl Palmer.

Investigators call both fires at Dover Baptist and Crystal Spring Missionary suspicious. There is growing concern about the ten church fires since New Year's Day. These are the first to be back-to-back on the same night. They were just 30 minutes apart and three miles in distance.

"Somebody's going to get seriously injured or hurt, either from a fire or a fire truck trying to get to one of the churches," said Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton.

While investigators have not ruled the cause of Monday night's fires, ATF agents believe a serial arsonist or group or arsonists is targeting churches.

Reverend Brandon Owens found last night every congregation is vulnerable.

"One of the officers told us earlier that what they believed happened is somebody kicked in a side door and proceeded to go inside the church, and actually stood up in the pulpit and started the fire," said Rev. Owens of the Crystal Spring Missionary.

On Tuesday as he leads his members through this trying time, he also has words of advice.

"To all preachers and pastors everywhere, please get your security done, make sure your insurance is right and most of all, make sure you pray it up," said Rev. Owens.

Pastors from both churches who lost their places of worship are vowing to have services this Sunday.

Federal authorities are asking anyone with information on the fires to call 1-888-ATF-FIRE. A reward of $25,000 is being offered to anyone who has information that leads to an arrest.