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Suspect: Church fires started as 'joke'

Three Birmingham college students arrested, charged

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Court papers say Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, told a witness that he and a friend "had done something stupid."

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- Three Birmingham college students were arrested and charged Wednesday in connection with a string of Alabama church fires that is described in court papers as a joke that "got out of hand," authorities said.

The students -- Ben Moseley and Russell DeBusk, both 19, and Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20 -- are suspected in nine of the 10 fires last month.

The suspects were held on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to Ashby Baptist Church in Bibb County. In court filings, all three admitted being involved in the arson fires. No one was injured in any of the blazes.

U.S. Attorney Alice Martin said further charges are possible and that, if convicted, the students would face minimum sentences of five years for each count.

Authorities will seek indictments from a federal grand jury "in due course," she said.

"It's a good day when we can tell the people of Alabama that we believe this is an isolated instance," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said.

All nine fires occurred in rural counties southwest of Birmingham -- five in Bibb County on February 3, and four in Greene, Sumter and Pickens counties on February 7. Five of the churches had predominantly black congregations, and four had predominantly white members. (See map)

No one has been arrested in connection with a 10th fire, set February 11 at a mostly white Lamar County church.

"We don't think that there is any type of conspiracy against organized religion or against the Baptists or against religious beliefs in particular," Riley said. "I think that, today, Alabama and all of the faith-based community in this state can rest a little easier."

Moseley and DeBusk are both sophomores at Birmingham-Southern College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. They made initial appearances Wednesday morning in a federal court in Birmingham.

All three face a bond hearing Friday in a federal court in Birmingham. (Watch one of the suspects after he was arrested at a college dorm -- 1:12)

DeBusk's lawyer, Donald Colee, had no immediate comment. Tommy Spina, the attorney for Cloyd, said "Where we are headed with this case, I do not know."

Efforts to reach lawyers for Moseley were unsuccessful.

'Diversion did not work'

Birmingham-Southern President David Pollick said the students have been suspended and barred from campus since their arrest. He pledged that Birmingham-Southern will help rebuild the churches "both financially and in terms of our own labor."

"The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represented the heart and souls of their communities," he said.

Cloyd, who attends the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was taken into custody later in the day, federal law enforcement sources said.

UAB spokesman Gary Mans said Cloyd was a junior who transferred to the university in fall 2005 and lived off-campus. He would not disclose Cloyd's field of study or any disciplinary action, citing federal privacy laws.

According to court papers released Wednesday, Cloyd told a witness that he and Moseley "had done something stupid."

"Cloyd stated to the witness that Moseley did it as a joke and it got out of hand," an affidavit in the case states. "Cloyd stated that they set a church on fire."

Moseley and DeBusk admitted involvement in the fires, as well, the affidavit states. DeBusk said he was at the scene of the fires in Bibb County, where the three had been deer hunting the first weekend of February, and kicked in the door of two churches that later were set ablaze. (Watch churches reduced to smoldering embers -- 2:17)

Moseley told investigators that he and Cloyd set the other four fires "as a diversion to throw investigators off," the affidavit states. When questioned by investigators, "Moseley said the diversion obviously did not work."

None of the three has a previous criminal record, said Richard Montgomery, Alabama's state fire marshal.

DeBusk is a theater major at Birmingham-Southern, while Moseley's major was undeclared, college officials said. Mark Doll, a Birmingham-Southern sophomore who said he plays in a band with Moseley, told CNN he never heard Moseley speak of religion.

"There was nothing that we can see that would lead us to think he would do something like this," he said.

Pollick said he met with Birmingham-Southern students Wednesday afternoon and said they are determined to repair a reputation they said was "tarnished" by their classmates' arrests.

He said students, faculty and staff now feel connected to the communities "in a way that we didn't, in all honesty, yesterday."

"The one thing we are certain of is that this is a place where we belong," he said. "This is a place where we should extend our muscles and our resources and help seek out more resources."

Tire treads tip off investigators

Officials said the arrests were the result of good police work by a task force of about 250 state, federal and local law enforcement officers.

Investigators had said they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle that had been seen at the burned churches. According to the affidavit, tread marks left at the scene of four fires matched a rarely purchased set of all-terrain tires.

Investigators tracked a set of those tires from a tire shop in the Birmingham suburb of Pelham to a green Toyota 4Runner registered to Cloyd's mother. She told agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that her son was the vehicle's primary driver, the affidavit states.

That was one of about 1,000 leads involving 500 vehicles and about 1,300 people that investigators chased down over the past month, ATF spokesman Jim Cavanaugh said.

"We just pushed and pushed and pushed until we could make the break," Cavanaugh said.

CNN's Rusty Dornin, David Mattingly, Mike Phelan and Susan Walsh contributed to this report.

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