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Blacks' Arrests Belie Church Fire Suspicions

September 21, 1996|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Four months into an intensive effort by a federal task force to halt arsons at predominantly black churches, the number of arrests has soared and a surprising trend has emerged: African Americans have been implicated in a third of the cases.

The arrests of both black and white suspects seem to illustrate the complex and murky nature of the arson phenomenon, which erupted into national view earlier this year with a rash of blazes--most of them in Southern states.

Some of the investigations have documented the prevailing suspicion about motive for the fires: racial hatred, targeted at blacks.

Other cases, however, have been traced to different factors. In those that have resulted in arrests of blacks, the apparent reasons for the arsons range from one suspect in Texas who thought a fire would help bring his congregation closer together, to another man who was duped into burning a church in Portland, Ore.

"We're still seeing race and bigotry driving many of the fires as suspected," a high-ranking Justice Department official said this week. "But we're also seeing other motives as well, sometimes pranks, sometimes issues within the congregation, sometimes . . . individuals who are a little unbalanced."

Almost half of those arrested are juveniles who authorities said were involved in fires that began as teenage pranks. And, authorities said, three pastors have been arrested for burning their churches--two white and one black.

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Seventy arrests were made this summer, four times the number made before two Cabinet agencies, the Justice and Treasury departments, pooled their resources last spring to set up a special National Church Arson Task Force.

The task force, which includes federal prosecutors and agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was assembled in the wake of a surprising increase in fires at black churches that began in January 1995.

From Jan. 1, 1995, to Sept. 4 this year, there were 230 suspicious fires at all houses of worship nationwide; most of the fires were started this year. Of the total, 100--or 43.5%--were predominantly black churches, a number disproportionately high to the 12.5% black population in this country.

While 33% of those who have been arrested for burning black churches are African Americans, 93% of those arrested for burning white churches are white.

Despite the cases involving blacks burning black churches, some African American leaders said Friday that the public nevertheless should be vigilant against fires resulting from racial hatred.

"It doesn't surprise me that some of the cases may have involved interests other than racial hostility," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights in Washington.

But he worried that with many of the suspects being white juveniles, it could signal a "semiconscious racial bigotry that has become deeply ingrained in society."

"When these attacks are carried out as mere pranks," he said, "they may reflect a deeper social problem."

Officials in Washington were reluctant to speak publicly about the conclusions to be drawn from black suspects being arrested in a significant number of black church fires. They also cautioned that the task force is continuing its investigation and that the numbers could change.

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"We know from the evidence and the arrests made that race is driving some of these fires. But not all of them, certainly," said Deval Patrick, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division in Washington.

"So our response as investigators is to follow all of the leads and get to the bottom of things."

What remains unresolved is whether there truly has been a rising racial hatred behind the black church fires, as many political, religious and minority leaders have feared.

"There are cases that we know, and there are cases that we can show, where there has been racial motivation," a Justice official said. "And that does constitute a lot of them.

"But," he cautioned, "there are other cases where it is clear it is not racially motivated. And there is a class in the middle where investigators believe they are racially motivated but don't have the evidence to show that. There are cases where we might be able to establish an arson, but we can't establish a civil rights violation.

"And how that all is going to break down, I don't know yet."

Officials detailed some of the cases where black church fires prompted communities to initially worry that racial hatred was involved, only to find out that the investigations led to the arrests of black suspects.

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In Waskom, Texas, the Longridge CME Methodist Church was destroyed by fire May 14. The case was determined to be an arson, and on Aug. 6 a local grand jury indicted a black man.

Kendrick Demond Biggs, a 21-year-old church member and volunteer firefighter, had been called to the scene of the fire at the 110-year-old church. According to local authorities, he later made a statement admitting he had used a flammable liquid to start the fire.

Authorities added that Biggs was upset with tension at the church and hoped the burning would bring the congregation together.

In a second example, the Immanuel Free Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., was burned June 20 when two Molotov cocktails were thrown through a window.

On Aug. 1, Antoine Jamar Dean, 20, who is black, pleaded guilty in federal court in return for a five-year sentence, the minimum.

The church congregation is about 70% black.

Officials said the fire grew out of a bizarre arrangement between Dean and an inmate he had met while in a local jail. They said the other inmate, who also is black, persuaded Dean to torch the church. Then the other inmate supposedly planned to collect the reward and win a prison transfer by reporting Dean.

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