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Black Church Burns; FBI Joins Inquiry

Fire: Agents seek to determine whether Sacramento case was an arson attack like some in the South.

September 10, 1996| From Times and Wire Reports

SACRAMENTO — A predominantly black church burned to the ground here Monday, and federal agents promptly joined the initial inquiry to determine whether it was an arson attack similar to the spate of black church arsons elsewhere in the country.

FBI and other federal agents were on the scene conducting preliminary inquiries and stood ready to launch a full-scale investigation if local officials determine arson as the cause, said FBI spokesman Tom Griffin.

More than a dozen agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms scoured the blackened grounds, knocked on neighborhood doors and interviewed church members.

"We are determining whether there is going to be an FBI investigation based on violation of federal arson laws or civil rights laws," Griffin said.

'It's of suspicious origin, but there's nothing concrete as of yet," said Pete Urrea, resident agent in charge of the Sacramento office of ATF.

The Rev. John C. Rogers, pastor at the New Home Missionary Baptist Church, said, "I think somebody deliberately set it. I'm sad, but I'm not angry."

Standing amid the blackened rubble, Rogers said, "We're going to find a place to worship."

As of late afternoon Monday, Sacramento Fire Department investigators were still unsure what caused the blaze.

There have been more than 70 suspicious fires at church properties belonging to predominantly black congregations in southern states since 1995. An equal number of fires have been reported at white churches in the region.

There is evidence of racism in at least 18 of the fires.

In California, there have been no reports of similar attacks on church property in the same period, but at least one black church in Los Angeles has reported threats of arson.

In June, the Rev. Robert L. Cathcart, pastor of St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central, said he received a letter threatening that his church would be burned.

The letter said the church could expect the fire soon and was signed "KKK," Cathcart said.

Additionally, Phyllis Louie, administrative assistant to the director of the Los Angeles branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Los Angeles Fire Department records show that since 1991, 11 Los Angeles churches have suffered arson damage.

Some were racially motivated, she said.

Fire Department officials could not be reached to comment on the reports.

The Sacramento church was spiritual home to 200 members, who packed its sanctuary each Sunday and attended Bible study, choir practice or workshops on other days.

On Monday, dozens of church members huddled outside a chain-link fence that surrounded the charred remains.

"I can't believe it, really. It's incredible," said Allen Reese, 27, treasurer of the church's brotherhood and great-grandson of its founder.

Just hours before the blaze woke neighbors at around midnight, members had been singing joyously at the church's 31st anniversary celebration.

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