March 9, 2006
3 Students Held in Church Fires Set in Alabama
By RICK LYMAN
Three college students from the prosperous suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., were
arrested yesterday in the burning of nine Baptist churches last month in
rural Alabama. Federal officials said the fires were a "joke" that spun out
of control while the students were deer hunting.
After initially setting ablaze five churches in the county just south of
Birmingham, two students burned four additional churches days later in more
remote areas, hoping to divert investigators, the authorities said.
Two students, Benjamin N. Moseley and Russell L. DeBusk Jr., both 19, from
Birmingham-Southern College, were arrested on the campus after admitting
their involvement in the fires to federal agents, officials said.
The agents were led to the students by tire tracks at several burned
churches, officials said.
Several hours later, the authorities arrested Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, a
student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, whose mother owns the
Toyota 4Runner that left the tracks, federal agents said in an affidavit
with the criminal complaint.
The identities surprised investigators, who had speculated that the fires
were the work of people familiar with the remote rural roads where the
blazes were set, not products of the Birmingham upper middle class, one the
son of a doctor and another of a county constable.
"This is just so hard to believe," said the state fire marshal, Richard W.
Montgomery. "My profile on these suspects is shot all to heck and back."
At a mass gathering on the Birmingham-Southern campus on Wednesday
afternoon, the college president, David Pollick promised that the
institution would help rebuild the churches.
"Students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and
outraged," Dr. Pollick said. "We share the sorrow of our neighbors whose
churches represented the heart and soul of their communities."
From the beginning, investigators had theorized that the fires had no racial
motive, as there had been for many church fires throughout the Southeast in
the mid-90's. And that, they said, was borne out.
Four churches that burned early on Feb. 3 in Bibb County, about an hour
south of Birmingham, had predominantly white congregations, and one was
black. All four churches burned on the morning of Feb. 7 in an even more
remote stretch more than 90 minutes southwest of Birmingham had black
Officials have concluded that a church fire on Feb. 11 in another rural
corner of Alabama was not connected.
"We believe this is an isolated incident," Gov. Bob Riley said. "We don't
think there is any kind of organized conspiracy against religion or against
As a result of the arrests, Mr. Riley said, the dozens of parishioners who
have been nervously standing guard over their own churches for the last
month "can rest a little easier."
Mr. DeBusk and Mr. Moseley appeared briefly before Magistrate Judge Robert
R. Armstrong Jr. in the Hugo L. Black Federal Courthouse in downtown
Birmingham. They were slender and pale, with dark, floppy hair. Mr. DeBusk
wore blue jeans and an orange hooded sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, Mr.
Moseley a blue polo shirt and jeans.
Mr. Cloyd appeared separately, after his surrender.
All three were held in custody, at least until a bail hearing tomorrow.
Mr. Moseley and Mr. DeBusk were active in the theater program at their
college, acting and helping backstage. This year, they performed in
"Extremities," and Mr. Moseley was to appear in the spring in "Young Zombies
The Hilltop News, the campus newspaper, published yesterday under the
headline "Theater Students to Appear in Film" an article that started, "BSC
students Russ DeBusk and Ben Moseley are on the road to stardom."
The students were planning to appear in a locally produced independent film
about a young man played by Mr. DeBusk who struggled to motivate his slacker
Jenna Wright, who had worked on theatrical productions with Mr. Moseley,
said she had a hard time connecting someone who would burn churches with the
talented young man whom she knew.
"I am just completely in shock," Ms. Wright said. "This is just so sad. He
had so much potential."
The three suspects had their own pages on Facebook.com, a networking Web
site for college and high-school students.
In the area on Mr. Moseley's page where visitors can post messages,
alongside more than 12 expressing shock at the arrests and promising to pray
for the accused, was one that Mr. Cloyd posted on Jan. 9. It read:
"To my dearest friend Moseley:
"The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless,
the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of
Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of
evil! Only one problem stands in our way. I got a new cellphone for
Christmas and I no longer have your number, so send it to me and evil shall
once again come to pass!
"May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be
clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our
weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!"
According to an affidavit signed by Walker Johnson, a special agent at the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, analysis of the tire
tracks led agents on Tuesday to the home of Michael and Kimberly Cloyd on
the south side of Birmingham.
The tracks matched a set of tires that were specially ordered for Ms.
Cloyd's 4Runner. Ms. Cloyd told agents that her son Matthew was the
principal driver of the S.U.V.
Ms. Cloyd told agents that her son had told her he had not set the fires but
that he knew who did, the affidavit said, adding that Dr. Cloyd related that
his son told him on Tuesday that he had been present at the arsons and knew
who set them.
A witness, unnamed in the affidavit, told agents that Matthew Cloyd said he
and Mr. Moseley "had done something stupid," adding that it was something
that Mr. Moseley had done "as a joke, and it got out of hand."
Agents later interviewed Mr. Moseley who, they said, admitted setting the
five fires in Bibb County with Mr. Cloyd and Mr. DeBusk.
"Moseley stated that after they set fire to the first two churches, they saw
fire trucks driving by" Mr. Johnson's affidavit said. "Moseley said that,
after that, burning the other three churches became too spontaneous."
Agents said Mr. Moseley told them that just he and Mr. Cloyd had
participated in the second group of fires, four days later.
"These four churches were burned as a diversion, to throw investigators
off," Mr. Johnson wrote in his affidavit. "Moseley said the diversion
obviously did not work."
Mr. DeBusk admitted being present at the five arsons on Feb. 3, as well as
kicking in the doors of two churches. He said the three men had been
shooting deer in Mr. Cloyd's S.U.V. before the fires.
At a news conference in the hangar at the Tuscaloosa County Airport that was
the headquarters for the investigation, the special agent in charge for the
firearms bureau, James Cavanaugh, said officials had sifted through more
than 1,000 leads involving nearly 500 vehicles and 1,300 individuals before
the unexpected break that led them to the Cloyds.
Jim Noles contributed reporting from Birmingham, Ala., for this article.