CATEGORY: Monroe County
INVESTIGATION OF CHURCH FIRE CENTERS ON MOTIVATION
By Eileen Bailey
HATLEY – One member of the St. Paul C.M.E. Church in Hatley said he doesn’t believe a fire that caused minimal damage to his church was racially motivated despite an ongoing investigation by several federal and local agencies.
“The church has been in that community for as long as I can remember,” said Vert Nails, 38, a steward at the church. “It looks like it would have happened before the 1990s, like in the 1950s or 1960s.”
On March 5, a fire was intentionally set at a side door of the African-American church, located in the Parham community of Monroe County. Passers-by saw the fire and responded quickly, said Billy Hancock, resident agent in charge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Oxford.
The church, which has about 70 active members, is located in a racially mixed community, Nails said. “Blacks and whites have helped each other out (in the community),” he said.
Since the beginning of the year the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has investigated 12 suspected arson fires in Southern black-congregation churches this year. “We would look into any suspected church fire reported to the ATF to see if there are any federal violations,” Hancock said. He said his office has investigated several suspicious fires in the state.
In the Hatley fire, Hancock said his office and the FBI were notified about the intentionally set fire and are conducting an ongoing investigation. Assisting in the investigation are the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department and the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
No suspect has been arrested in the case, he said. “We are following several leads and until we determine the persons involved it would be pure speculation on what the motive might have been,” Hancock said.
Twelve grass fires were intentionally set in the area the same day the church burned, he said.
Federal agents are investigating 23 church fires that have been set since January 1995. No one has been injured or killed in this current wave.
The Hatley fire, Nails said, did only minor damage to the church and interrupted children’s classes on the Wednesday night following the fire. Sunday services, he said, continued as normal. The damage was repaired about two weeks after the fire, Nails said.
Anyone with information about the Hatley fire or other church fires are asked to call the ATF at (601) 234-3751, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department at (601) 369-2468 or the State Fire Marshal’s Office at (601) 844-5579.