Originally created 11/05/99

Arsonists get minimum sentence



SAVANNAH -- Members of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Hinesville received a $790,000 check Wednesday from an insurance company to rebuild their church the same day a federal judge sentenced two 19-year-olds to five years in prison for burning it down last April.

"This brings a feeling of healing and closure to this," Bishop Larry Shaw said after the sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court. "It's just ironic that it happened the same day."

William Monroe Cassat and Bobby James Miness, who pleaded guilty to the arson in August, received the minimum mandatory sentence for arson. They could have gotten as much as 20 years.

Authorities narrowed in on the Hinesville men after witnesses saw them walking away from the church, which was under construction, the night of the fire. Police also found footprints on the ground that led from the church to the trailer park where Mr. Cassat lived.

The pair confessed to the April 27 arson soon after they were arrested. Mr. Miness said he burned the church because he was upset that his aunt, mother and Mr. Cassat's mother had turned him out. In a fit of frustration, he said he began burning the scaffolding, then the stairs and other items inside the church.

Mr. Cassat helped Mr. Miness bring a huge piece of cardboard into the church and set it on one of the fires. Soon, the fire stretched to the steeple, and the boys were making their way back to the Horseshoe Bend Trailer Park where Mr. Cassat lived.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Newman sought to have the charge against Mr. Miness classified as a hate crime, which would have given the 19-year-old up to two additional years in prison.

The prosecutor read in court Mr. Miness' own statement to police soon after he was arrested.

"I was really [filtered word] off, and everybody that was supposed to be great Christians and love one another," Mr. Miness said. "I mean I saw a church, the cross, a Christian. It all went together in my head."

But U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. said he felt it was a stretch to classify it as a hate crime. Judge Moore said there was no showing that Mr. Miness hung out with gangs or organizations that espoused racial or religious hatred.

"In the court's opinion, this act was committed out of stupidity, dumbness, meanness, whatever other adjective I might think of, but not some vicious or hate-type act committed against religion," Judge Moore said.

Judge Moore ordered the two young men to pay the church $103,105 in restitution and the church's insurance company $790,000. But Bishop Shaw doesn't think he'll see a penny from the men.

"My heart goes out to all of the people who worked so hard to build the church and put a church in the city of Hinesville and had it brought down by two dropouts," Bishop Shaw said. "That should be a statement to Hinesville. Crime never pays, and it causes devastation to others needlessly."

Bishop Shaw said the church has forgiven Mr. Cassat and Mr. Miness for the arson, but there is still frustration. The $790,000 will not cover what is needed to rebuild the church, which had $1.8 million invested in it when it was burned.

The church owes a bank $1.2 million it borrowed for the construction project. It will probably have to take out other loans to cover the damage, Bishop Shaw said, but he hopes to have it complete by the spring of 2000.

"Since 1996, we've been working to build this church," Bishop Shaw said. "This church means more than the building. It's our culture. Our life. To have these two boys burn down the church is quite devastating to the community."