wo students at Birmingham-Southern College and another from the University of Alabama-Birmingham were charged March 8 in connection with a string of church burnings in rural Alabama.
A witness said the fires started as a joke that got out of hand, court records show. Two of the three suspects, Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., 19, and Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, both Birmingham-Southern students, are being held in federal custody without bond after an appearance Wednesday morning before a federal magistrate judge. The third suspect, UAB student Matthew Lee Cloyd, was arrested Wednesday afternoon and awaited an initial appearance before a judge.
"I feel great for Alabama and relief for America," said Jim Cavanaugh, regional director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He made the comment at a news conference with other elated law enforcement officials.
The three students are charged in a two-count federal complaint with conspiracy and burning Ashby Baptist Church in Bibb County. DeBusk and Moseley will return to federal court at 3 p.m. Friday for a detention hearing. The three face five to 20 years in prison and up to a $500,000 fine.
Speaking at the Wednesday news conference, Alabama Attorney General Troy King praised law enforcement authorities for "just good old-fashioned police work" that ended a "reign of terror."
The church arson spree started February 3 when the first of five Baptist churches were found burned in Bibb County; three of them were destroyed. The second group of fires came February 7, when four more churches were destroyed. The 10th occurred February 11 in Lamar County. Moseley admitted to federal agents Tuesday that he, Cloyd and DeBusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd's green Toyota 4Runner and set fire to five churches, according to an affidavit filed this morning in Birmingham's federal court.
"Moseley said that after they set fire to the first two churches, they saw fire trucks driving by," the affidavit said. "Moseley said that after that, burning the other three churches become too spontaneous."
Moseley told agents that he and Cloyd went to west Alabama and burned four more churches as an attempt to throw off investigators.
"Moseley said the diversion obviously did not work," the affidavit said. An unnamed witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley "did it as a joke, and it got out of hand," according to the affidavit signed by ATF agent Walker Johnson.