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Fires probed for links to church arsons

Investigators focused on solving 'another dimension of crime'

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Alabama
Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms

(CNN) -- Investigators on Monday were examining two fires in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to determine whether they were set intentionally and, if so, whether they are related to a series of fires set at churches elsewhere in the state.

The first blaze, early Friday, was at the Wesley Foundation Methodist student center on the University of Alabama campus, in the western part of the state.

The second, late Friday, was at a Tuscaloosa warehouse that stored merchandise for a business that prints and sells religious articles, among other items.

Neither blaze had been ruled arson Monday by the team of local, state and federal investigators, officials said.

The warehouse fire broke out about 11:50 p.m. Friday, said Tuscaloosa Police Chief Ken Swindle. Authorities have no suspects, he said, but would like to talk to a man who witnesses reported was videotaping the blaze.

Jim Cavanaugh of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said a national response team will be investigating the warehouse fire and will determine whether it is related to the church fires. (Watch Cavanaugh discuss the fires -- 5:13)

"This one, right now, I don't feel like it's related, but I can't say for sure. I don't know," he said. "Fires happen a lot. If this was an average day in Tuscaloosa, there'd be a fire. What happens is, when you have a series of events ... everybody's radar is up."

Authorities earlier had said the student center fire could be accidental, but the cause Monday remained undetermined pending tests conducted Sunday, said Ragan Ingram, assistant commissioner of insurance for the Alabama Department of Insurance, which includes the state fire marshal's office.

Investigators are looking into the possibility the fire was started by candles, he said. A candlelight vigil was held there in the hours before the blaze began.

Investigators have ruled that an attempted arson early Sunday, at a Church of God near the east Alabama community of Glencoe, was unrelated to the other intentionally set fires, Cavanaugh said. That attempt involved two Molotov cocktails thrown at the remote church, resulting in minimal damage.

"We don't believe it's related," Cavanaugh said. "We believe it's a very localized case, but we're working that heavy, too."

Such unrelated fires, he said, serve as a "distraction" to agents investigating the series of church arsons, but "we've got the commanders focused on the mission."

The 10 church arsons have all been at Baptist churches. Investigators have not decided whether one of them, which heavily damaged Beaverton Freewill Baptist Church in Lamar County on February 12, is related to the other nine. Cavanaugh noted that, in contrast to the others, it was set during the day.

Five of the 10 churches have predominantly black congregations and five, including Beaverton Freewill Baptist, have mainly white members.

Asked about the results of lab testing, he said "lots of stuff has come back," but would not elaborate.

"We feel good about the case," he said. "We've got a lot of leads to chase. This is not 'CSI.' I can't come back in an hour and have everybody wrapped up. It's difficult."

This week, ATF agents will be handing out a church security brochure to area houses of worship and will meet with pastors, he said.

Cavanaugh earlier said authorities believe the fires are being set by two young men in their 20s or early 30s who are an "inseparable team, always together" and live in western Alabama. They may keep late hours, he said.

Authorities also are still looking for a dark SUV witnesses reported seeing at the site of at least one fire, possibly a black Pathfinder, Cavanaugh said.

"Burning a church is another dimension of crime," he said. "That's why it's important to us. A lot of people who would commit a crime wouldn't burn a church."

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