PELHAM, Ala. (March 9, 2006) — A tire dealership in Pelham led federal agents to three college students who now face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of setting fires at nine Baptist churches in Alabama last month.
Federal investigators arrested Benjamin Moseley, 19, of Birmingham, Ala., Russell DeBusk Jr., 19, of Hoover, Ala., and Matthew Cloyd, 20, of Indian
Springs, Ala., on March 8. All three are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit arson and one count of arson.
The single charges are for a fire at the Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, Ala., on Feb. 3. Eight other churches suffered fires on Feb. 3 and Feb. 7, according to federal documents. Six of the churches were completely destroyed by the fires, and the three others sustained various levels of damage. Investigators have not determined the cause or origin of a 10th reported fire at the Wesley Foundation Church on the campus of the University of Alabama on Feb. 17, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Though the arsons weren't believed to be race-related since some of the churches had mostly white congregations, the crimes had unnerved residents and church-goers, who wondered if the motive was against Baptists or religion in general. Instead, the alleged motive turned out to be a prank that got out of hand, federal documents said.
According to the arrest affidavit, investigators recovered tire tread tracks at six church fire scenes that were “visually consistent” with the tread of a BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/AKO tire.
On March 7, federal agents showed up at Cahaba Radial Tire in Pelham. Business Manager Jim Collins said the agents had the tire tracks narrowed down to three sizes, and they asked him to search his customer records.
“They knew what they were looking for,” Mr. Collins told Tire Business.
But they arrived at Cahaba Tire purely by old-fashioned pounding the pavement. Mr. Collins said he was told agents had visited about 120 different tire stores for leads.
Mr. Collins turned up four invoices for a special-order size—265/70R16—and one turned out to be from Mr. Cloyd's mother, who is a regular customer at Cahaba Tire. When agents interviewed her, she allegedly asked her son about the fires, and he replied that he knew who did it, the affidavit said.
“I was glad we had some paperwork to bring it together,” Mr. Collins said, though he feels sorry for the mother, whom he knows well. He said he had recognized all the names on the invoices and had been sure none was involved.
According to the affidavit, Mr. Cloyd's mother bought a set of the BFGoodrich tires from Cahaba Tire last July. They were mounted on a 2000 Toyota 4Runner.
Mr. Moseley told investigators the three traveled to Bibb County on Feb. 2 in the 4Runner and set fire to five churches there, according to the affidavit. A witness told investigators that Mr. Cloyd said that Mr. Moseley “did it as a joke and it got out of hand,” the affidavit alleges.
Messers. Moseley and Cloyd then allegedly traveled to western Alabama on Feb. 6 and burned four other churches as a “diversion to throw investigators off. (Mr.) Moseley said the diversion obviously did not work,” the affidavit said.
Mr. Collins said he's not familiar with any of the churches that were set afire, but he has become an instant celebrity for his role in the investigation, with news crews descending on the shop. Cahaba Tire is a 30-year-old, single-outlet Bridgestone/Firestone dealership that also sells Goodyear, Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal tires and does automotive service. Mr. Collins has worked at the dealership for six years.
“We're just glad we could help,” he said.