Ala. Church Fires Started 'As a Joke'

March 9, 2006 — -- Three college students suspected of setting fire to nine Baptist churches in Alabama have been arrested.

Russell Debusk Jr., known as a prankster at Birmingham-Southern College, was arrested Wednesday in front of his roommate, Jeremy Burgess.

"He was distraught," Burgess said. "He looked just as confused as I was."

Ben Mosley, also a sophomore at Birmingham-Southern College, also was arrested in the case. Debusk and Mosley are aspiring actors, and, coincidentally, on the morning their arrest was announced, the school newspaper ran an article about the two sophomores being cast in an independent movie.

"There is no indication that this is a hate crime," said Alice Martin, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Instead, court papers say Debusk and Mosley -- along with Matt Cloyd, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham -- set the first church fire "as a joke." As the fire trucks raced by, they spontaneously decided to start four other fires.

"And it all caught up to them," said Burgess. "They panicked and tried to cover their tracks."

They started four more church fires in a different area on Feb. 7, hoping to throw off the investigators. But the tire tracks found at the scene of six fires revealed a print of an unusual all-terrain tread. Investigators checked more than 100 stores and discovered that one of them had sold that type of tire to Cloyd's mother.

Some pastors and parishioners, in the midst of rebuilding their churches, are already offering forgiveness.

"I pray that God would have mercy on them and God will save them," said the Rev. Terry Bell, associate pastor at Centreville's Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church, which was completely destroyed by the fire.

If convicted, each church arson carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. None of the men has prior records.