At least two black churches in South damaged in arson fires, investigators say

Arsonists are suspected of attacking at least two black churches across the South last week, but no arrests have been made or suspects identified, officials told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

None of the late-night attacks have been a declared a hate crime and it's unclear whether any of the fires are linked. Social media reports that six black churches have been burned down in arson attacks are not accurate, according to local officials' accounts of the fires.

The incidents have raised concern among the public and federal investigators nonetheless.

Black churches, especially in the South, have long been a target for arson through the civil rights movement and even as recently as the 1990s. Last week's fires come just days after Dylann Roof, 21, who appeared to have embraced white supremacy, was charged with fatally shooting nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17.

Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are particularly focused on two suspected arsons that destroyed churches in North Carolina and Georgia, officials said.

"ATF is the lead investigative agency, and we have special agents and certified fire investigators from several field divisions investigating the fires to determine cause and origin," Ginger Colbrun, spokeswoman for the ATF, said in a statement provided to The Times on Monday. "We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related."

Here's what the Los Angeles Times was able to learn about the six fires.

College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

On the night of June 21, a Sunday, someone set fire to a church-owned van and lighted a pile of straw and bags of dirt that were sitting next to the predominantly black College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, fire and church officials said.

The unmarked van was destroyed and the straw fire scorched a brick wall outside the church, but the fire did not otherwise damage the church, said D.J. Corcoran, a captain with the Knoxville Fire Department. The fire was reported about 9:30 or 10 p.m., he said.

The incendiary materials were available on site, and another van that was marked with the church's name and logo was untouched, Corcoran said.

“It wasn’t like anyone came in with Molotovs or anything like that. There were no indications it was a hate crime or anything," Corcoran said, adding the nature of the fire was “more associated with something you’d see kids do, vandalism-type stuff."

The church's senior pastor, Cleveland Hobdy III, said he was concerned but has not received any threats in his five months at the church and did not see any evidence it was a hate crime.

“They didn’t leave the typical stuff that hate-crime stuff leaves.... We did tell investigators that in light of the history of violence against churches, fires and violence, you might to put this one on the back burner, but don’t take it off the stove," Hobdy said.

Services for his congregation of about 250 carried on as normal Saturday, Hobdy said.



6:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said services for Hobdy's congregation carried on as normal Sunday. Seventh-day Adventists hold services on Saturdays.


Although it may be "probably just some crazy kid," Hobdy said that "in light of the string of fires after us, I just talked to an officer this morning [and said], 'You got too many burnings.'"

God’s Power Church of Christ, Macon, Ga.

In the early-morning hours of June 23, a fire destroyed the two-story God's Power Church of Christ, which has a predominantly black congregation of 50, according to church and fire officials.

Although the fire was being investigated as a possible arson, "preliminary investigations and evidence is not leading us to believe the fire was set with a malicious intent," Macon-Bibb County Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said in a statement provided to The Times.

Riggins said that the likely source of the fire had been identified and that investigators were still awaiting the results of lab samples from the scene.

“We are in a wait-to-see mode, because we don’t know if it’s a hate crime, and why, but we are just holding out and we’re enduring the circumstances," Jeanette Dudley, an assistant pastor for the church who is acting as a spokeswoman, told The Times. "We’ve been [carrying on] as good soldiers."

Dudley said the congregation was now meeting at a space in Danville, Ga., and the church plans to rebuild.

“We are a strong congregation, and we are keeping it moving," Dudley said. "We are not letting this get us down, especially to the point that we hate anyone -- we are still just peaceful, loving people.”

Fruitland Presbyterian Church, Gibson County, Tenn.

What happened to the Fruitland Presbyterian Church on the night of June 23 was sad -- the church burned down -- but it probably does not belong in news and social media reports circulating about arsons at black churches.

“That church is a white church, and it was struck by lightning," Bryan Cathey, the Gibson County fire chief, told The Times. He said he is "98% sure"  the blaze was caused by a lightning strike. "We're just waiting on the ATF report," he said.

Cathey said the church was built in the 1800s, had about 15 congregants and was on the historical registry.

Briar Creek Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C.

Shortly after midnight on June 24, an arson fire destroyed a building and caused at least $250,000 in damage at the Briar Creek Baptist Church complex, fire officials said.

Local and ATF investigators are looking into the attack, but "there’s nothing that came out to our investigators that immediately led us to believe it was a hate crime," Cynthia Shah-Khan, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte Fire Department, told The Times. "It's one of many possibilities."

Shah-Khan said that the church complex has four or five buildings connected by breezeways and that "the sanctuary wasn't really impacted -- I believe they had services there yesterday."

The church's African American co-pastors, Mannix and Rhonda Kinsey, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

“We had a whole youth area, which is actually the area we lost, with a full game room, gym, weight room,” Rhonda Kinsey told the Charlotte Observer last week. However, she said tearfully, “No lives were lost.... When I think about that, I’m extremely grateful.” 

Glover Grove Baptist Church, Warrenville, S.C.

The Glover Grove Baptist Church was destroyed in the early morning of June 26. State investigators announced Monday that they were unable to find a cause for the fire and could not rule out that it was an accident.  

“Investigators observed no element of criminal intent,” the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, said in a statement.

Fire officials responded to a 911 call at 3:26 a.m. and saw that "the church was fully involved," according to a statement from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office provided to The Times. 

County officials turned the investigation over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and SLED.

The church's African American pastor, Bobby Jones, could not be reached for comment Monday, but he promised to rebuild in an interview with the Aiken Standard.

“It’s a blessing, because whatever God allows to happen is for a purpose, and we know that,” Jones told the Standard, adding nonetheless, “It was devastating. It was just an empty feeling. The more I talk about it, the more grievous I get.... Everything is gone. Books, robes, all my pictures, all my degrees. All the history is gone.”

Jones, also a professional electrician, said "everything was in good order. ... The gas was good – everything. I don’t understand it. If there was anything faulty in the electrical circuit, I would have found that out.”

Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church, Tallahassee, Fla.

The Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church was destroyed on June 26, causing at least $400,000 in damage. Officials said the fire was likely touched off by an electrical short. 

"A large tree limb fell on the property, pulling the electrical service line away from the church, likely causing the electrical short," the Tallahassee Fire Department said in a statement last week.

A spokesman for the Fire department did not respond to messages seeking an update Monday, and the church's African American pastor, Jacob Henderson Sr., could not be immediately reached for comment.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the marquee in front of the church had read, "Call 911. This church is on fire!," since a revival more than two months ago.

"We got such a large, positive feedback from the sign that we kept it up for a while," Jacob Henderson Jr., the son of the pastor, told the newspaper. "But to see it as an opportunity where 911 had to be called because the church is on fire is an even tougher reality.... To see it all go is like something has been taken out of you, ripped away from you.... That's the toughest part."

Follow @MattDPearce for national news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times