Federal law enforcement officials on Wednesday charged three college students with setting a string of February fires at Alabama churches, saying that the students had acted out of the "excitement and thrill" of setting fires. The arrests put Birmingham-Southern College, where two of the students were enrolled, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where the third is enrolled, in the glare of the national spotlight, the stuff of cable TV news.
Nine Baptist churches -- some predominantly black, some predominantly white -- were damaged or destroyed by fires from February 2 to February 7, prompting what the state's attorney general, Troy King, called a "reign of terror that had gripped rural Alabama and riveted the attention of the nation," because of concerns that the apparent arson had been religiously motivated.
In the month since the last fires were set, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state and local authorities explored about 1,000 possible leads. One of them -- an unusual set of tracks from special-order SUV tires -- led investigators to Matthew Lee Cloyd, according to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.
The complaint said that Cloyd, a 20-year-old sophomore at Alabama-Birmingham, had told a witness in the case that he and Benjamin Nathan Moseley, a 19-year-old sophomore theater student at Birmingham-Southern, had "done something stupid."
According to the complaint, state and county investigators and officials from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms interviewed Moseley yesterday, and he told them that he, Cloyd, and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., another Birmingham-Southern sophomore, set fire to five churches on February 2. The complaint said that after burning the first two churches, fire trucks drove by, Moseley allegedly said, and "burning the other three churches became too spontaneous." At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, a federal official said the comments suggested that the young men had been motivated by the "excitement and the thrill" of setting the fires.
The complaint also quotes Moseley as saying that he and Cloyd had then set fire on February 6, to the other churches, in the Western part of the state, as a "diversion" to try to throw investigators off -- a diversion that he told investigators obviously had not worked.
The three men -- who were repeatedly referred to by correspondents on CNN and MSNBC during the course of the day Wednesday as "college boys" or "college kids" -- each were charged with two counts of conspiring to maliciously damage and destroy buildings by means of fire.
Officials at Birmingham-Southern, which is affiliated with the Methodist Church, held a news conference Wednesday at which they expressed deep regret over the alleged actions of the two arrested students. College officials said that they had suspended Moseley, a second-generation Birmingham-Southern student, and DeBusk and barred them from the campus.
“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community," President David Pollick said in a prepared statement. He bemoaned the fact that "we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct," and suggested that the students had been drinking. "The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men."
On the Birmingham-Southern campus, peers of the two students, who are active in the campus theater scene, expressed shock. Moseley "is a goofy guy who loves making people laugh," said Ashley Pope, editor of the campus paper, The Hilltop News, which published an article yesterday (written before the revelations) about the two students' promising acting careers. "I've never seen or heard of him committing evil or violent acts before and I never imagined that he would be capable of something like this."
She added: "If I had to guess, he considered it to be a joke and it went way too far. He doesn't always think about consequences of what he does, he acts spur of the moment. Nine churches, of course, suggest premeditation, so it is very out of character."
A spokesman for the University of Alabama at Birmingham said the institution would have no comment.