Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More information on the Alabama church fires

Here's some more information on the Alabama church fires. From Yahoo News:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Federal agents said Wednesday they were looking for a dark sport utility vehicle in the investigation of nine rural Alabama church fires.

Two members of Old Union Baptist Church in Bibb County said they saw just such a vehicle driving slowly by the church at Brierfield when they arrived moments after the fire was set around 4:05 a.m. Friday.

"They were looking at the church when I spotted them," one of the witnesses, Alvin Lawley, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "It was like they wanted to see what they had done."

Lawley said he got in his vehicle to briefly pursue the SUV and saw a white man in the passenger seat but couldn't see the driver.

Lawley and member Hilman Moses had hurried to the church after being alerted that other church fires along rural roads had erupted early Friday in the county just south of Birmingham. All five fires have been ruled arsons, and federal agents say they are working on the assumption that the four Tuesday in west Alabama are linked to those in Bibb County.

Witnesses and authorities reported a similar pattern at several of the burned churches, including Old Union — a door kicked in and the fire set near the pulpit.

Witnesses in west Alabama also reported seeing a dark SUV near at least one of the burned churches.

Austin Banks, a special agent of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, told The Tuscaloosa News that two white men were seen near the church fires in west Alabama. But Eric Kehn, a spokesman for ATF, said Wednesday he had no information about anyone in the SUV. Birmingham FBI Special Agent Ray Zicarelli declined to comment in advance of a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Banks did not immediately return a call for comment.

The four churches that burned Tuesday in three adjoining counties on the Mississippi line all have black congregations. But four of the five churches set afire in Bibb County have white congregations. Agents said they do not have a motive in the arsons.

Lawley said the SUV slowed down outside the church "like they were checking something" and sped away when he got in his vehicle. Neither Lawley nor Moses saw they SUV's license plate, they said.

Lawley said he initially thought the SUV was a Nissan Pathfinder but now believes it was either a Pathfinder or a Toyota, either black or dark blue in color.

So now it appears we've got two white men driving a black or dark blue Nissan or Toyota SUV, that the FBI or ATF wants to talk to. And it appears that a dark-colored SUV was seen in two of the church fires. Interesting developments.

A couple comments on this. First, I'd say that the either the FBI or ATF probably knows what type of SUV was in the vicinity of these church bombings, considering they've made molds of tire-tracks, and could have determined what type of tire made those molds (and what vehicles would use that type of tire). Second, this story reveals a couple more details on these fires--specifically two men, one of which is a white man, driving around in a particular make of an SUV--specifically a Nissan or a Toyota SUV. Since the federal investigators are still clueless as to who are responsible for these church fires and why they are taking place, this information could be selectively released in hopes that the feds could get some good tips from witnesses to help solve these cases. There is just one slight problem. Now that further details on these fires are coming out in the press, will the arsonists stop their bombings and perhaps lay low for a while? Or are we going to now start seeing copycat arsonists torching more Baptist churches in Alabama?

Stay tuned.

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