Originally created 01/19/99

Church arsons investigated



ATHENS, Ga. -- After more than two weeks, members of Johnson United Methodist Church are ready to begin the work of restoring their building after a New Year's Eve arson.

Members of the small, rural Oconee County church have been waiting for investigators and insurance agents to finish combing over every detail of the building's charred and smoke-damaged interior. But they've been in good spirits during the wait, their pastor, the Rev. Robert Murphy, said.

"It hasn't been a problem. It's been a change," he said, adding that he's been pleased with the speed of the investigation.

The damage to the church was minimal because a passer-by spotted the fire and called 911 just after it began New Year's Eve, but other churches in the area weren't so lucky.

State Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine continues to investigate five church fires which occurred within a period of about two weeks in north Georgia. One of the investigations is also a murder investigation because it involves the death of a firefighter.

Loy Williams, 27, a volunteer Banks County firefighter, died on New Year's Eve while battling an intentionally-set blaze at the New Salem United Methodist Church near Commerce.

It was one of three arsons reported in the area that night. An abandoned house near Commerce was set on fire around 9 p.m., the New Salem church fire was reported around 9:30 p.m., and someone spotted a fire at the Johnson United Methodist Church in Oconee County around 12:30 a.m. Jan. 1, according to Mr. Oxendine's office.

A Christmas morning fire at the Sardis Full Gospel Church in Walton County and two Murray County fires, one Dec. 23 at the Amazing Grace Baptist Church and one Dec. 24 at Mountain View Baptist Church, have also been ruled arsons.

There's no word yet on whether the same hand set all of those fires, officials in Mr. Oxendine's office said recently, but the targets are similar. They're all small buildings in rural areas that are unoccupied for most of the week. The congregations that occupy the buildings are mostly white.

All the churches burned were more than 75 years old, and all the fires except one started near the pulpit. Mr. Oxendine also said all of the fires involved forced entry.

To combat the tide of church arsons, Mr. Oxendine's office has been working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and fire departments and sheriff's offices all across northeast Georgia.

While the arson investigations have bridged government agencies, the church fires have bridged racial lines, said Ozell Sutton, southeast regional director for the National Church Burnings Task Force, an organization under the direction of the U.S. Justice Department designed to help communities in the aftermath of church burnings.

"In America, the burning of a church is serious. It goes across racial lines," he said. "Whether it's where blacks or whites worship, when you burn down a church, you have insulted the entire community -- black, white, brown and yellow."

A rash of church fires in Tennessee made headlines a few years ago, but fires have since disappeared from newspapers and TV until this latest spree. That doesn't mean there was a lull in fires or the racial tension he believes goes along with them.

Racism was touted as a likely motive in the Tennessee arsons, and Mr. Sutton said it should still be considered a motive for the Georgia arsons, even though they involve mostly white congregations.

Like many racial problems, hate crimes usually start with violence against minorities and then moves into the majority, Mr. Sutton said.

People can call the Georgia Arson Hotline at (800) 282-5804 with tips. Callers can stay anonymous.