THE MAGAZINE

Arson, Texas: Anatomy of the East Texas Church Fires

By E. Floyd Phelps, CPP

Very few people have heard of the rural farm community of Little Hope, Texas, located in Van Zandt County, about 55 miles east of Dallas. The closest town is the East Texas city of Canton and most people would not know about Canton if it were not for the First Monday Trade Days. The community was settled around a church, built in 1894. Legend has it the name was selected when one of the community members said that the church had little hope of lasting a full year – but it did. The name stuck.

 On New Year’s Day, Bill Parr, the pastor of the Little Hope Baptist Church, who lives in the parsonage next to the church, was reading the paper when the phone rang. The caller told Reverend Parr that it looked like smoke was coming out of the church.  He called 911 only to learn that fire units from Canton, Van Zandt County, and Ben Wheeler were already on their way. The fire gutted the education space, the fellowship hall, and the kitchen. The sanctuary sustained considerable smoke damage. The cause was initially blamed on a faulty electrical box but later proved to be arson, according to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigative team. ATF agents found the true ignition source—stacked hymnals and other combustible materials placed around the piano and then ignited by the arsonists.
 
 
The burning of Little Hope Baptist Church would be the first of ten arson fires set in East Texas churches over a six-week period. Only later did the public learn that the Little Hope fire was the work of arsonists. The ATF did not disclose the information until after the arrest of two subjects who are believed to be the perpetrators. After the suspects were arrested, the findings of the Little Hope investigation were finally revealed.   
 
The East Texas arson rampage is a classic case study of why arsonists find houses of worship easy to victimize. By reviewing the tactics of the East Texas arsonists, religious leaders and their congregations can learn what actions they can take to target harden their churches and places of worship to prevent them from going up in flames. The preventative measures are commonsensical and inexpensive, and just enough to send an arsonist on to an easier target.
 
Arson’s Toll
 
According to the United States Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting Systems data and the National Fire Protection Association, it is estimated that an average of 316,600 intentional fires are reported each year, accounting for 40 percent of all reported fires in the United States. The most recent statistics tell a tale of death and destruction: in 2006, arson caused 7,825 injuries to firefighters and civilians, while 10 firefighters lost their lives. The economic devastation comes to a staggering estimate of 1.1 billion dollars annually.
 
While arson is not an uncommon event, two things made the East Texas fires unusual. First, it quickly became clear that there was a serial arsonist at work. Second, all of the targets were churches. Attacks on houses of worship, however, are not a totally unique event. Last year, 90 houses of worship were intentionally set on fire, according to ATF statistics. The average loss of each fire was approximately $250,000. For whatever reason, the trend has continued into 2010. Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, has already documented 81 such incidents, indicating that this year’s total could match if not exceed last year’s toll.Unfortunately, for the first six weeks of this year, East Texas became the hotspot of church arson activity.  
 
The same morning of the Little Hope Baptist Church fire, another fire broke out two hours later on the outskirts of Athens, Texas, approximately, twenty-five miles away from Little Hope, this time in Henderson County. At approximately 11:05 a.m., a call came in reporting that smoke was coming from the Faith Baptist Church. A church member on his way to work had noticed the smoke billowing from the breezeway that connected the sanctuary and church offices. The Athens Fire Department responded quickly. They were soon followed by firefighters from the surrounding communities of Baxter, New York-LaRue, Brownsboro, and Shady Oaks in a display of mutual aid. By 12:37 p.m. the fire was under control.
 
Monday morning the Athens fire marshal began his investigation of the fire’s origin. The walls to the sanctuary were still standing but the interior was black with soot. There were visible signs of a burglary. It appeared that entry into the office area was gained by breaking a window on the west side of the building.
 

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