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'This was a set fire'

But latest black church burning
apparently unrelated to others

June 7, 1996
Web posted at: 9:15 p.m. EDT

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- A fire that destroyed the sanctuary of a black church in Charlotte overnight was set deliberately, but there is no evidence tying it to 29 other suspicious fires at black churches in the South since 1995, investigators said Friday.

"It has been determined that the fire set at this church building was intentionally set," said Keith Bridges, a spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department.


Timeline of black church fire investigations

Logan

"As far as any conspiratorial ties, there is nothing we have found to link this to any other fires," added Mark Logan, special agent in charge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Charlotte. "This was a set fire." (124K AIFF or WAV sound)

The fire consumed the wooden sanctuary at Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church, a historic structure that dated back to 1903. It had been used for storage but was due to be renovated and turned into a wedding chapel, according to Rev. Larry Hill, the church's pastor. There were no injuries in Thursday night's blaze.

new chapel

From the first spark, members of the congregation called it suspicious, particularly since so many other black churches had been burned in the last 18 months. "Hate can swell up in your soul tremendously, and we are experiencing some of that in the world now," Hill said.

On Monday, a black Baptist church in Alabama was destroyed by fire. Investigators are also looking into fires in Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. There have been five arson arrests in the chain of burnings, which African-American leaders have charged were racially motivated.


Hill

Investigators were still sifting through the ashes of the Charlotte church for clues in the case. Because of the possible interstate nature of the crime, investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are involved, as well as the FBI, which is looking into whether there were civil rights violations.

"Racial hatred and animosity has driven a number, although not all of the fires we've solved," said Deval Patrick, who heads the FBI's civil rights division. "It is premature to make a conclusion one way of the other about whether all the fires are linked."

But since no link has yet been found to the other church burnings, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory expressed hope that this fire might become a strictly local concern. "We think we have the best local police department and fire department to solve who did this and how it was set," he said.

McCrory

Though its congregation is black, the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church is surrounded by mostly white subdivisions.

But McCrory stressed that Charlotte race relations are "extremely good." "The church is very confident, and I am very confident that we have the expertise to solve this crime."

A reward of up to $10,000 has been posted for information on who started the fire. Investigators hope to learn enough by this weekend to solve the case as quickly as they came up with the first clues.

In Washington, President Clinton said he would discuss the fire and the issue of black church burnings in his weekly radio address Saturday.



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