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Neighbors Are at a Loss Over Students' Arson Arrest

THE NATION

`This is so out of the bounds of what we deal with here,' says one Alabama professor.

March 10, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — "BSC theater students Russ DeBusk and Ben Moseley are on the road to stardom," said the story in the campus newspaper at Birmingham-Southern College.

A few days ago, many students here would have said that was a fair prediction. The two sophomores were creative, popular products of Birmingham's comfortable suburbs. Benjamin Nathan Moseley, the son of a Jefferson County constable, sang baritone in the college choir. Russell DeBusk Jr. had been chosen to star in a local director's feature film, with Moseley playing his comic foil.

They were being molded by one of Alabama's most prestigious private schools -- a Methodist-affiliated college where 70% of students take part in organized volunteer work.

Yet when the biweekly paper hit the racks this week, DeBusk and Moseley -- both 19 -- were in federal custody, charged in a string of church fires in poorer, rural communities to the south and west of here.

A third man, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, also was arrested and charged in connection with the fires. Cloyd, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the son of a doctor and was an honor student in high school.

In the suburbs of Birmingham this week, people were perplexed. "They were smart kids, middle class," said Lane Graham, 57, a resident of DeBusk's hometown, Hoover. "You don't know if it's stuff they read, stuff they learned in school or what."

"These kids were not some huckleberries from the South," said Renee Sakaguchi, a parent in Indian Springs Village, a tony suburb of rolling hills and horse farms where Cloyd grew up. "I'm going to have my sons read the [newspaper] articles and say: 'Look at what these boys had in front of them -- and now look at what they have to look forward to.' "

Birmingham is a city with pockets of wealth nourished by the old steel and iron industries and, more recently, healthcare and banking.

All three suspects in the church fires grew up in neighborhoods with median household incomes of more than $50,000. In Sumter County, where the students allegedly burned Galilee Baptist Church, the median household income is $18,911. Nearly 40% of Sumter County residents live below the poverty line.

The charges seemed particularly difficult to swallow at Birmingham-Southern. The small campus attracts the children of Alabama's elite. Its students are proud of their commitment to public service. They tutor in inner-city Birmingham, work in San Francisco homeless shelters and volunteer in Mozambique.

Some on campus sought Thursday to distance themselves from the arrests. A few dozen students had signed a resolution posted in the cafeteria and passed by the student government the night before. It stated that the crimes did not represent the school's principles of "positive community and civic engagement, honorable morals and global human dignity."

Others looked for words to describe their feelings about the suspects, young men they knew as friends or valued students and could still speak of warmly.

"I am overwhelmed by the immense immaturity of it," said Lester Seigel, the choir director and chairman of Birmingham-Southern's fine arts department. "There is a moral disconnect -- this is so out of the bounds of what we deal with here."

Federal authorities allege that Moseley, DeBusk and Cloyd burned five churches in central Alabama during a night of hunting that started Feb. 2.

Moseley and Cloyd burned four more churches a few days later to throw investigators off their trail, according to an affidavit filed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The document quotes Cloyd as telling a witness that the fires started as "a joke and it got out of hand."

DeBusk and Moseley were campus clowns, to some extent, but entertaining was something they took seriously. According to the student paper, they were thinking about moving to Los Angeles together to pursue careers in film. They spent much of 2005 honing their dramatic skills in campus plays, eventually attracting the attention of Brian Wilson, 25, an aspiring director who cast them in his movie "Work," a romantic comedy.

He said DeBusk and Moseley showed up in the audition in matching baseball shirts and pitched themselves as a team. He liked their rapport and their timing. He also liked their professionalism: The next day they showed up at his house in suits, with head shots and resumes in hand.

The small crew shot many of their scenes while the newspapers were full of stories about the church fires. Wilson said his director of photography brought the issue up one day but DeBusk and Moseley seemed uninterested.

"They were just like, 'Oh, that's crazy, whatever,' " he said.

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