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Probe Finds No Conspiracy in Church Arsons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One year after a rash of fires at African American churches prompted the creation of a national task force to combat church arson, its leaders said Sunday that they have found no evidence of a racist conspiracy or even a clear pattern to the crimes.

“It’s difficult to draw conclusions on why this happened,” said Assistant Treasury Secretary James E. Johnson, who co-chaired the task force. “We have not seen hard evidence to support the theory of a nationwide conspiracy. And we’re seeing that many of the fires were committed by individuals acting alone.”

So far, among those arrested, 42% have been juveniles, the task force said. The motives of the suspects have ranged widely, Johnson said, including racial hatred, profit, vandalism and revenge.

Some of them said they “saw it on the news and this became the thing to do,” Johnson said in a briefing for reporters.

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Indeed, the national attention given the problem of church fires may well have spurred a series of copycat crimes. According to the data released Sunday, the number of church arsons almost quadrupled in the month following President Clinton’s announcement of the federal task force.

In May 1996, incidents of arson nationwide were reported at 12 churches, five of which served mostly African American congregations. A month later, after the president’s announcement highlighted the problem, 47 churches suffered fires or bombings nationwide. Of these, 19 were African American churches.

From its peak last June, the number of church fires gradually declined. By last month, the number of incidents had subsided to the same level--12 in all--seen the month before the task force was created.

In a one-year report to the president, the task force leaders said their efforts had “produced tremendous results.” Suspects have been arrested in 35% of the cases, they said, which is double the normal arrest rate for arson cases.

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The update by officials from the Treasury and Justice departments was timed to coincide with the Clinton administration’s focus this week on the issue of race relations.

In his Saturday radio address, the president called for “an all-out assault on hate crimes.” He cited FBI reports suggesting that hate crimes have risen by 42% since 1991, the year before Clinton was elected.

On Saturday, the president is expected to focus on race relations in a commencement address at UC San Diego.

Last year’s series of suspicious fires at black churches in the rural South reawakened his memories of an earlier, painful era of racial hatred. Clinton said the reports recalled for him scenes from his childhood in which black churches were burned in his native Arkansas.

“It’s hard to think of a more depraved act of violence than the destruction of a place of worship,” he said last year when he created the National Church Arson Task Force. While the initial evidence showed no obvious conspiracy, he said, “it is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents. And this must stop.”

The federal task force said it has logged 429 incidents of arson involving churches nationwide since Jan. 1, 1995. Of these, 162 involved African American houses of worship. In the South, half of the incidents involved predominantly black churches.

While some churches were burned to the ground, many incidents involved lesser damage, such as torched curtains, a burned pew or a firebomb tossed through a window.

In all, 199 suspects have been arrested in incidents dating back nearly 2 1/2 years. Of these, 160 are white, 34 African American and 5 Latino.

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The report says 110 people were convicted, but officials said they had no racial breakdown of these numbers. They noted that 14 of the people were convicted for civil rights violations in addition to arson.

“Arsons are extremely difficult to solve,” Johnson said. “Evidence burns. It’s destroyed. So it’s remarkable that we have achieved these results.”


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