Fueling The Flames

Joseph Louderback reports on a rash of church fires.


Racial hatred. Vandalism. Insurance fraud. Burglary cover-up. No matter what the motive for the recent church arsons, the nation is learning what the fire service has known for years it needs help with the arson problem. With over 50 fires striking churches throughout the South recently, the...


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Racial hatred. Vandalism. Insurance fraud. Burglary cover-up. No matter what the motive for the recent church arsons, the nation is learning what the fire service has known for years it needs help with the arson problem.

With over 50 fires striking churches throughout the South recently, the focus of the nation is on "fire." Will the attention help America's fire service?

"We've got to make it help," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), founder of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus.

Rarely does the fire service get the attention of the citizenry and government officials at one time. When the president of the United States summons officials to the White House to talk about fire, as recently happened, it's an opportunity.

One would expect Weldon to be happy. An active firefighter for many years before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he led the Capitol Hill charge by drafting members of Congress to respond to the problem in its infancy. Joining with insurance companies and fire organizations, Weldon was instrumental in attacking the issue with prevention seminars for church leaders and an on-site inspection program.

While many are getting behind what has become the largest arson investigation in U.S. history, the deluge of suspicious fires puts good as well as questionable items on the table for the firefighters. Officials, both on and off the record, are concerned over how the escalating church fire issue, spiced with implications of racial overtones, beat other fire service initiatives to the top of the funding list. Millions in funding is being pumped into an effort being spearheaded by an army of 250 federal agents blanketing the rural South. On July 2, President Bill Clinton announced a $6 million plan for the U.S. Justice Department to fund local police agencies in "high-risk areas." The money is earmarked to hire more police officers, cover overtime for existing departments, and for the installation of security equipment and the hiring of security guards.

As a unanimous Congress passed legislation doubling the penalty for church arson from 10 to 20 years, Clinton ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create an interagency task force including the Justice and Treasury departments. The mission: give the government increased power to investigate and prosecute arson.

Still, the monumental effort is dogged by complaints from black leaders that they are being targeted with tough questions while the racial conspiracy side is bypassed. Leaders are asking tough questions about the burning of their sanctuaries, but some don't like law enforcement's questions.

The leaders' frustration poured out during a recent summit of law enforcers and state attorney's general at Howard University in Washington, DC. They expressed outrage over investigators' queries directed at fellow church members, the use of polygraph tests and requests to review church records.

The frustration from the floor was readily apparent. Honor Davis, a self-described "old man" from Georgia, pleaded: "Tell me now before I go home to God if you are going to give me something to tell Jesus about how you resolved these cases."

One South Carolina pastor asked if there was a supported research effort to analyze the facts critically. "Are we dealing with this in a haphazard, ad-hoc and piecemeal manner?" he queried.

Another pastor from Washington probed further: "Are we sure there is no pattern?" he asked, pointing to the large number of juveniles being cited. His concern: they might be used as a tool of a larger adult conspiracy. "How can anyone in their right mind say that this is not a pattern?" he noted.

Add the recent admission from the Treasury Department that it reassigned two agents after looking at 12 church-fire investigators because they attended "Good Ol' Boy Roundups," gatherings of law enforcers in Tennessee. According to one media report, some participants engaged in racist and sexist conduct at the events. The two were referred for possible disciplinary action because of their "level of participation." The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did not respond to requests for information from Firehouse®.

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