THE MAGAZINE

Arson, Texas: Anatomy of the East Texas Church Fires

By E. Floyd Phelps, CPP

A Pattern Emerges

 
It was nearly two weeks before the arsonists struck again—twice in the same night. This time, however, the perpetrators left behind a critical piece of evidence and raised the specter of a serial arsonist.
 
On the evening of January 11, a fire was reported at the Grace Community Church, south of Athens. The responding firefighters noticed that the door on the west side of the church was standing open. When questioned, the pastor remembered closing and locking all of the exterior doors. The battle to save the building was doomed from the start, since fires were started in multiple locations. Agencies from surrounding communities joined the fight. When the fire was extinguished, the shell of the church was still standing, but the inside was damaged wall to wall. Firefighters were still battling the Grace Church fire when just after midnight a 911 call was received reporting that the Lake Athens Baptist Church, three miles away, was on fire. The destruction to the sanctuary was devastating.
 
The ATF was called in to help with the investigation. Agents with an accelerant sniffing dog and the help of sheriff’s deputies spent the day searching for evidence. A shoe print, later identified by the crime lab as coming from a Skechers shoe, was found at the scene of the Lake Athens Baptist Church fire. Next to the shoe print was a large boot print, determined to be the mark of a Red Wing work boot. A piece of concrete, used as a splash guard at the base of the church’s roof gutter, had been removed and thrown through the office window to allow the arsonists entry. Hymnals and wooden chairs had been gathered up and stacked around the church sanctuary, including in the baptistery and choir loft, by the fire setters and used as the fuel for the source of the blaze.
 
Four fires involving churches in less than two weeks—it couldn’t be coincidental. The evidence pointed to a serial arsonist or team of fire starters. The next eight days seemed to confirm that assumption.
 
Around dinner time on January 16, firefighters were called to the Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, an East Texas city located in Smith County. The ATF determined that the fire was incendiary in nature, but because of the extensive damage caused by the fire no determination could be made of how entry was gained. Nevertheless, a rough pattern was emerging. Up until this point five churches had been destroyed or significantly damaged by fire—all were Baptist.
 
Almost exactly twenty-four hours later, the target pattern broke slightly when a non-Baptist church was ignited. On the evening of Sunday, January 17, a fire was reported at the First Church of Christ Science, also located in Tyler. Three window panes on the north side of the church had been broken. An additional pane on a door located on the south side of the church had been smashed to gain entry. Again hymnals and other flammable materials had been gathered up and stacked around the organ and several other locations around the sanctuary and set on fire.
 
Two days later, the ATF posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. The very next day the Prairie Creek Fellowship Church located in Lindale—again in Smith County—was set ablaze. The subsequent investigation revealed the fire to be incendiary as well. Entry had been gained by breaking a glass door which opened into the sanctuary. Available combustible materials, stored in a closet were used as the fire source.
 
At this point fire investigators were working cases in three Texas counties covering a total area of 2,648 square miles. Seven churches had been torched and the three-county area had an estimated 713 churches. Investigators from numerous agencies worked together to develop leads, and local agencies assisted with nightly patrols of churches in the area to prevent additional arsons.
 
On the day of the Prairie Creek Fellowship Church fire, a task force was formed as a joint effort to catch the arsonists. The agencies involved included the Texas Department of Public Safety; the Federal Bureau of Investigation;  ATF; the Tyler Police Department; the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department; Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department; Wills Point Police Department; Smith County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, and Fire Marshal’s Office; Athens Police Department; and the Canton Police Department.
 
What made the East Texas arsons interesting, however, was how they differed from the typical arson profile. Most arson fires are started at night, but the East Texas church fires were set at various times of day and various days of the week. Churches that were attacked were not restricted to one denomination. Targeted churches also were not in a single geographic area but involved three counties and five towns. Most serial arsonists tend to work alone, but it appeared that a duo or team of arsonists were involved in these fires. Moreover, it did not appear that any of these fires were racially motivated.
 
Early on the ATF’s National Response Team had taken the lead in investigating the East Texas church arson fires, working closely with investigators with local jurisdiction. When an arson fire was indicated, the team, made up of 30 ATF officers with various specialized disciplines, would report to the scene to assist local authorities in the investigation, bringing, not only additional expertise, but access to sophisticated testing and analysis equipment at the ATF Crime Lab. Because of the frequency of the fires involved in this case, there were as many as three teams working at various locations at one time. The ATF raised the reward from $5,000 to $10,000.
 
The arsonists laid dormant for the rest of January.
 
A Temporary Lull
 
Three weeks went by without an arson. Then during the early morning of February 4, a fire was reported at Russell United Methodist Church in Wills Point, Van Zandt County. The church had served the community for 135 years and had a Texas Historical Marker commemorating its significance. The incident bore the signatures of the previous attacks. A rock had been thrown through a window pane on the north side of the structure and multiple fires had been started. Destroyed, along with the building, were all of the church’s memorabilia, paintings and pictures dating back to its formation in 1875
 
Three days later, the burglar alarm at the Heritage Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, was activated just after midnight. Although entry was not made, a shoe print was found at the scene. Analysis revealed that the print matched the print pattern of the Skechers shoe print found at the Lake Athens Baptist Church fire the previous month.
 
The next night, the Tyler fire department responded to a fire call at the Dover Baptist Church on Monday, February 8. A rock had been thrown through the nursery window. Again, the Skechers shoe print was observed at the scene. Approximately one hour later, a report came in that Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church was burning. The firefighters were still trying to extinguish the fire at Dover Baptist Church. Again, a video tape was recovered from a nearby convenience store. Jason Robert Bourque was observed on the store’s video shortly after the fire call.
 
Then the big break in the case came. Video evidence from a nearby Exxon convenience store showed two individuals, later identified as Jason Robert Bourque, 19, and Daniel George McAllister, 21, at the store at the time the church fire was discovered at Dover Baptist. Also of note, two other nearby churches had been broken into that night in between the two fires, but burglar alarms are believed to have chased off the intruders.
 
With Bourque and McAllister on the radar, the investigation began to focus on the two suspects. The reward sponsored by ATF was raised to $25,000. In addition, an insurance company offered $30,000 for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist. Within days the ATF received a call from an individual saying that Bourque was responsible for the church fires.
 
On Thursday, February 11, ATF agents made contact with Jason Bourque at his residence. They told the suspect that they were checking for vehicles fitting the description of a blue Ford Focus that was suspected of being involved in church fires. They asked if they could see his vehicle in his garage. Inside, agents spotted a pair of muddy Skechers shoes next to the door leading from the garage to his home. The agents, aware that this was the type of shoe pattern at several of the fire scenes, did not mention it, waiting until they could obtain a search warrant.
 
Surveillance was established on the suspect Bourque. On Saturday, February 13, he was observed by officers leaving his home in Lindale and traveling to Atwood’s Ranch and Home Store in Tyler approximately 15 miles away. A couple of days later, store personnel contacted law enforcement. They had found a message carved in the wall of the restroom. The message read, "Little Hope was Arson," with an upside-down cross in flames under the wording.  The restroom was checked by investigators who verified the content of the message carved into the restroom wall. The store’s video system was reviewed, and video from February 13 recorded Bourque entering the restroom. Up until that point, only ATF and the person who had started the fire knew the Little Hope Baptist Church blaze was actually arson.
 
Arrest warrants were prepared for both Bourque and McAllister. Each suspect was charged with a single felony charge of arson for the torching of the Dover Baptist Church, the ninth of the ten churches burnt. According to authorities, they are suspects in the nine other church fires that were ruled arsons and three attempted church break-ins. During the pre-dawn hours of February 21, Bourque and McAllister were arrested. During a press briefing later that day, the details of the case were revealed. Both men are being held on $10 million bond awaiting trial. They could face life in prison if convicted. The motive behind the blazes remains a mystery.
 

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