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Girl, 13, Arrested as Probe of Church Fires Is Pressed

Crime: North Carolina police see no link between white teen, arson at other black sanctuaries. Questioning of three men in two Texas blazes comes as tension rises.

June 11, 1996|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT and ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A 13-year-old white girl was arrested Monday on charges that she set fire to a black church building in Charlotte, N.C., and police elsewhere questioned three young men about two fires in Texas--the most recent of more than 50 suspected arsons at black churches.

Police in Charlotte said that they found no evidence of a conspiracy involving the teenager, who was charged with setting a fire Thursday at a former sanctuary used to store pews on the grounds of the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church.

In Greenville, Texas, two whites and a Latino were questioned about the two fires, although the second blaze was reported several hours after their arrest. Fire chief Robert Wood said that both fires were "acts of local vandalism" in the community about 40 miles northeast of Dallas.

The new blazes bring to 36 the number of fires at black churches this year. There were 16 last year.

Monday's events came as tensions and fears rose in some southern states as well as in Washington, where ministers whose churches have been burned in the wave of fires told federal officials they believe a racist conspiracy is at work. They accused the Clinton administration of not doing enough to flush it out.

Administration officials said they were moving aggressively and pledged to do more. Their statements, however, underscored the difficulties involved in determining responsibility for attacks that could be the work of a single group of conspirators or an unrelated series of arsonists staging copycat crimes--or something in between.

As the administration struggled to respond to the fires and the ministers' complaints, the White House announced that President Clinton will visit a South Carolina church Wednesday that had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt.

The ministers want the government to declare that the unsolved burnings are linked.

"The investigation should be turned squarely in the direction of white supremacist groups," the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, associate director of the National Council of Churches, told a news conference after a delegation of ministers met with Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--an agency of Rubin's department--is helping to investigate the fires.

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Jones and other ministers complained that federal agents have focused their investigations on interviews of the ministers and their congregations, as if they were suspects.

Rose Johnson, executive director of the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based research group that deals with hate crimes, said her organization will file complaints with the FBI and the ATF alleging misconduct by agents.

The ministers and their congregants "are tired of federal harassment and intimidation," she said. "They will not sit back and be disrespected by the federal government or anyone else."

Federal officials insisted that their cadre of more than 200 FBI and ATF agents must use aggressive investigative techniques to solve the crimes.

They also pointed to the difficulty of establishing links among crimes at widely scattered sites through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and New York.

"Given the pattern, we would be nuts not to be looking at a larger conspiracy as one of the possible explanations of what's going on," said James Johnson, assistant Treasury secretary for enforcement. "We are not in a position to say, one way or the other, whether or not there was an overarching conspiracy."

Earl Woodham, an ATF official in Charlotte, said in a telephone interview that the evidence indicates the 13-year-old "acted alone but we are not closing the door on other suspects." Her parents are cooperating with the inquiry, he noted.

The girl has been charged with a state offense called "burning of a church building or other building." If prosecuted as an adult, she could receive a maximum of 20 years in prison. A juvenile court hearing is pending.

She was not charged with a federal crime because arson is a federal violation only if it is part of a conspiracy, if a federal building is burned or if the arsonist crossed state lines.

The men being questioned in Greenville in connection with fires at the New Light House of Prayer and the Church of the Living God were stopped because their automobile was similar to one seen by witnesses parked outside one of the churches shortly before the fire.

One of the men, a 22-year-old, was charged with failure to show a driver's license and with providing alcohol to minors. The other two, both 18, were charged as under-age drinkers.

Although there have been more than 50 fires in the last 18 months, the issue has become the focus of national attention only recently. Arrests have been made in 11 cases and two fires were classified as accidents.

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