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Arson, Texas: Anatomy of the East Texas Church Fires

Very few people have heard of the rural farm community of Little Hope, Texas, located in Van Zandt County, about 55 miles east of Dallas. The closest town is the East Texas city of Canton and most people would not know about Canton if it were not for the First Monday Trade Days. The community was settled around a church, built in 1894. Legend has it the name was selected when one of the community members said that the church had little hope of lasting a full year – but it did. The name stuck.

 On New Year’s Day, Bill Parr, the pastor of the Little Hope Baptist Church, who lives in the parsonage next to the church, was reading the paper when the phone rang. The caller told Reverend Parr that it looked like smoke was coming out of the church.  He called 911 only to learn that fire units from Canton, Van Zandt County, and Ben Wheeler were already on their way. The fire gutted the education space, the fellowship hall, and the kitchen. The sanctuary sustained considerable smoke damage. The cause was initially blamed on a faulty electrical box but later proved to be arson, according to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigative team. ATF agents found the true ignition source—stacked hymnals and other combustible materials placed around the piano and then ignited by the arsonists.

The burning of Little Hope Baptist Church would be the first of ten arson fires set in East Texas churches over a six-week period. Only later did the public learn that the Little Hope fire was the work of arsonists. The ATF did not disclose the information until after the arrest of two subjects who are believed to be the perpetrators. After the suspects were arrested, the findings of the Little Hope investigation were finally revealed.   

The East Texas arson rampage is a classic case study of why arsonists find houses of worship easy to victimize. By reviewing the tactics of the East Texas arsonists, religious leaders and their congregations can learn what actions they can take to target harden their churches and places of worship to prevent them from going up in flames. The preventative measures are commonsensical and inexpensive, and just enough to send an arsonist on to an easier target.

Arson’s Toll

According to the United States Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting Systems data and the National Fire Protection Association, it is estimated that an average of 316,600 intentional fires are reported each year, accounting for 40 percent of all reported fires in the United States. The most recent statistics tell a tale of death and destruction: in 2006, arson caused 7,825 injuries to firefighters and civilians, while 10 firefighters lost their lives. The economic devastation comes to a staggering estimate of 1.1 billion dollars annually.

While arson is not an uncommon event, two things made the East Texas fires unusual. First, it quickly became clear that there was a serial arsonist at work. Second, all of the targets were churches. Attacks on houses of worship, however, are not a totally unique event. Last year, 90 houses of worship were intentionally set on fire, according to ATF statistics. The average loss of each fire was approximately $250,000. For whatever reason, the trend has continued into 2010. Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, has already documented 81 such incidents, indicating that this year’s total could match if not exceed last year’s toll.Unfortunately, for the first six weeks of this year, East Texas became the hotspot of church arson activity.  

The same morning of the Little Hope Baptist Church fire, another fire broke out two hours later on the outskirts of Athens, Texas, approximately, twenty-five miles away from Little Hope, this time in Henderson County. At approximately 11:05 a.m., a call came in reporting that smoke was coming from the Faith Baptist Church. A church member on his way to work had noticed the smoke billowing from the breezeway that connected the sanctuary and church offices. The Athens Fire Department responded quickly. They were soon followed by firefighters from the surrounding communities of Baxter, New York-LaRue, Brownsboro, and Shady Oaks in a display of mutual aid. By 12:37 p.m. the fire was under control.

Monday morning the Athens fire marshal began his investigation of the fire’s origin. The walls to the sanctuary were still standing but the interior was black with soot. There were visible signs of a burglary. It appeared that entry into the office area was gained by breaking a window on the west side of the building.

A Pattern Emerges

It was nearly two weeks before the arsonists struck again—twice in the same night. This time, however, the perpetrators left behind a critical piece of evidence and raised the specter of a serial arsonist.

On the evening of January 11, a fire was reported at the Grace Community Church, south of Athens. The responding firefighters noticed that the door on the west side of the church was standing open. When questioned, the pastor remembered closing and locking all of the exterior doors. The battle to save the building was doomed from the start, since fires were started in multiple locations. Agencies from surrounding communities joined the fight. When the fire was extinguished, the shell of the church was still standing, but the inside was damaged wall to wall. Firefighters were still battling the Grace Church fire when just after midnight a 911 call was received reporting that the Lake Athens Baptist Church, three miles away, was on fire. The destruction to the sanctuary was devastating.

The ATF was called in to help with the investigation. Agents with an accelerant sniffing dog and the help of sheriff’s deputies spent the day searching for evidence. A shoe print, later identified by the crime lab as coming from a Skechers shoe, was found at the scene of the Lake Athens Baptist Church fire. Next to the shoe print was a large boot print, determined to be the mark of a Red Wing work boot. A piece of concrete, used as a splash guard at the base of the church’s roof gutter, had been removed and thrown through the office window to allow the arsonists entry. Hymnals and wooden chairs had been gathered up and stacked around the church sanctuary, including in the baptistery and choir loft, by the fire setters and used as the fuel for the source of the blaze.

Four fires involving churches in less than two weeks—it couldn’t be coincidental. The evidence pointed to a serial arsonist or team of fire starters. The next eight days seemed to confirm that assumption.

Around dinner time on January 16, firefighters were called to the Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, an East Texas city located in Smith County. The ATF determined that the fire was incendiary in nature, but because of the extensive damage caused by the fire no determination could be made of how entry was gained. Nevertheless, a rough pattern was emerging. Up until this point five churches had been destroyed or significantly damaged by fire—all were Baptist.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours later, the target pattern broke slightly when a non-Baptist church was ignited. On the evening of Sunday, January 17, a fire was reported at the First Church of Christ Science, also located in Tyler. Three window panes on the north side of the church had been broken. An additional pane on a door located on the south side of the church had been smashed to gain entry. Again hymnals and other flammable materials had been gathered up and stacked around the organ and several other locations around the sanctuary and set on fire.

Two days later, the ATF posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. The very next day the Prairie Creek Fellowship Church located in Lindale—again in Smith County—was set ablaze. The subsequent investigation revealed the fire to be incendiary as well. Entry had been gained by breaking a glass door which opened into the sanctuary. Available combustible materials, stored in a closet were used as the fire source.

At this point fire investigators were working cases in three Texas counties covering a total area of 2,648 square miles. Seven churches had been torched and the three-county area had an estimated 713 churches. Investigators from numerous agencies worked together to develop leads, and local agencies assisted with nightly patrols of churches in the area to prevent additional arsons.

On the day of the Prairie Creek Fellowship Church fire, a task force was formed as a joint effort to catch the arsonists. The agencies involved included the Texas Department of Public Safety; the Federal Bureau of Investigation;  ATF; the Tyler Police Department; the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department; Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department; Wills Point Police Department; Smith County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, and Fire Marshal’s Office; Athens Police Department; and the Canton Police Department.

What made the East Texas arsons interesting, however, was how they differed from the typical arson profile. Most arson fires are started at night, but the East Texas church fires were set at various times of day and various days of the week. Churches that were attacked were not restricted to one denomination. Targeted churches also were not in a single geographic area but involved three counties and five towns. Most serial arsonists tend to work alone, but it appeared that a duo or team of arsonists were involved in these fires. Moreover, it did not appear that any of these fires were racially motivated.

Early on the ATF’s National Response Team had taken the lead in investigating the East Texas church arson fires, working closely with investigators with local jurisdiction. When an arson fire was indicated, the team, made up of 30 ATF officers with various specialized disciplines, would report to the scene to assist local authorities in the investigation, bringing, not only additional expertise, but access to sophisticated testing and analysis equipment at the ATF Crime Lab. Because of the frequency of the fires involved in this case, there were as many as three teams working at various locations at one time. The ATF raised the reward from $5,000 to $10,000.

The arsonists laid dormant for the rest of January.

A Temporary Lull

Three weeks went by without an arson. Then during the early morning of February 4, a fire was reported at Russell United Methodist Church in Wills Point, Van Zandt County. The church had served the community for 135 years and had a Texas Historical Marker commemorating its significance. The incident bore the signatures of the previous attacks. A rock had been thrown through a window pane on the north side of the structure and multiple fires had been started. Destroyed, along with the building, were all of the church’s memorabilia, paintings and pictures dating back to its formation in 1875.

Three days later, the burglar alarm at the Heritage Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, was activated just after midnight. Although entry was not made, a shoe print was found at the scene. Analysis revealed that the print matched the print pattern of the Skechers shoe print found at the Lake Athens Baptist Church fire the previous month.

The next night, the Tyler fire department responded to a fire call at the Dover Baptist Church on Monday, February 8. A rock had been thrown through the nursery window. Again, the Skechers shoe print was observed at the scene. Approximately one hour later, a report came in that Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church was burning. The firefighters were still trying to extinguish the fire at Dover Baptist Church. Again, a video tape was recovered from a nearby convenience store. Jason Robert Bourque was observed on the store’s video shortly after the fire call.

Then the big break in the case came. Video evidence from a nearby Exxon convenience store showed two individuals, later identified as Jason Robert Bourque, 19, and Daniel George McAllister, 21, at the store at the time the church fire was discovered at Dover Baptist. Also of note, two other nearby churches had been broken into that night in between the two fires, but burglar alarms are believed to have chased off the intruders.

With Bourque and McAllister on the radar, the investigation began to focus on the two suspects. The reward sponsored by ATF was raised to $25,000. In addition, an insurance company offered $30,000 for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist. Within days the ATF received a call from an individual saying that Bourque was responsible for the church fires.

On Thursday, February 11, ATF agents made contact with Jason Bourque at his residence. They told the suspect that they were checking for vehicles fitting the description of a blue Ford Focus that was suspected of being involved in church fires. They asked if they could see his vehicle in his garage. Inside, agents spotted a pair of muddy Skechers shoes next to the door leading from the garage to his home. The agents, aware that this was the type of shoe pattern at several of the fire scenes, did not mention it, waiting until they could obtain a search warrant.

Surveillance was established on the suspect Bourque. On Saturday, February 13, he was observed by officers leaving his home in Lindale and traveling to Atwood’s Ranch and Home Store in Tyler approximately 15 miles away. A couple of days later, store personnel contacted law enforcement. They had found a message carved in the wall of the restroom. The message read, "Little Hope was Arson," with an upside-down cross in flames under the wording.  The restroom was checked by investigators who verified the content of the message carved into the restroom wall. The store’s video system was reviewed, and video from February 13 recorded Bourque entering the restroom. Up until that point, only ATF and the person who had started the fire knew the Little Hope Baptist Church blaze was actually arson.

Arrest warrants were prepared for both Bourque and McAllister. Each suspect was charged with a single felony charge of arson for the torching of the Dover Baptist Church, the ninth of the ten churches burnt. According to authorities, they are suspects in the nine other church fires that were ruled arsons and three attempted church break-ins. During the pre-dawn hours of February 21, Bourque and McAllister were arrested. During a press briefing later that day, the details of the case were revealed. Both men are being held on $10 million bond awaiting trial. They could face life in prison if convicted. The motive behind the blazes remains a mystery.

 Lessons Learned

In a little less than six weeks, ten rural churches were set on fire. All were easy targets. If some of the following precautions had been taken, undoubtedly some of these fires might have been prevented.

The most expensive option for churches is to install a sprinkler system. Often churches in rural areas are not required by code to install sprinkler systems. Installing protection is a sound business decision, however: it will reduce loss and provide better use for church funds rather than rebuilding the church.

Another layer of security that will cost a congregation some money is a burglar alarm. The East Texas arson suspects broke church windows before entering. It is believed they were testing to see if the church had a burglar alarm before they tried to enter. If there was a burglar alarm, as investigators believe in the case of the Heritage Baptist Church and two other churches, they would go to another church. Another relatively inexpensive layer of security is lighting. Churches should use motion activated lights to illuminate the exterior of the building at night. As Bourque and McAllister’s suspected arson rampage shows, minor target hardening practices could have saved many structures.

The serial arsons also teach another valuable lesson: secure flammables in a locked storage area. This includes cleaning materials and paper supplies. It is the habit of most churches to leave hymnals in place in the sanctuary. In most of the East Texas church fires the perpetrators used the hymnals as the fuel source to start the fires. It’s also smart to keep trash dumpsters or other flammables away from the building.

Churches should also create a culture of security awareness. One option is to establish an arson/security crime watch with church members that live in the area or travel past the church. These members should then be trained to be observant of unusual circumstances: an unknown car in the parking lot when the church is closed, strangers hanging around the church when nothing is scheduled, exterior door standing open, a broken window, or smoke coming from or near the building.

Finally, when securing the building and contents use good solid doors and locks. Aesthetically pleasing doors and locks that are burglary resistant can be purchased at most home improvement stores. It’s surprising how many churches either do not lock their doors or use inferior locks that do nothing to stop a committed adversary.

Church leadership has a tendency to think themselves immune to violence and destruction. The events in recent years have proven this idea wrong. All organizations—governmental, commercial, and non-profit—are faced with the stewardship of their assets and charged with the protection of people, property and public image. Houses of worship are no different. Using these precautions can drastically reduce the vulnerability of places of worship. As the East Texas arson rampage shows, a simple burglar alarm can send the criminals looking for an easier target.

E. Floyd Phelps, CPP, is a current member of the Fire & Life Safety Council and the former chair. He is a frequent contributor to Security Management and a member of the ASIS Quarter Century Club.

Note: As of publication, Jason Robert Bourque and Daniel George McAllister have not gone to trial for their alleged arson of the Dover Baptist Church. The contents of this article are based on law enforcement press releases and official public record documents.