Crime & Courts

FBI investigating string of church fires, including one in Charlotte

The charred remains of the back left wing of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, Thursday afternoon, June 25, 2015. The church was intentionally set on fire early Wednesday morning.
The charred remains of the back left wing of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, Thursday afternoon, June 25, 2015. The church was intentionally set on fire early Wednesday morning. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The FBI confirms the agency is investigating several fires at predominately black churches across the South in the past week. Some of the fires have been ruled arson, including the fire at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in east Charlotte last week.

The FBI, ATF, and local authorities are sharing information in the investigations to determine motive and cause, and whether any of the fires could be classified as a hate crime. This comes after an alleged white supremacist is accused of shooting and killing nine worshippers at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, earlier this month.

At the same time, there's a nationwide movement to remove the Confederate flag off public grounds and state license plates. Saturday, two protestors were arrested in Columbia, SC, for removing the flag from Statehouse grounds. Governor Nikki Haley has said she supports removing the flag, but it's up to state lawmakers to approve legislation for it to come down.

The Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of six fires at predominantly black churches, including three that have been ruled arsons, in Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The other fires have an undetermined cause; or could possibly be electrical or storm related.

Worshippers at Briar Creek Baptist held service Sunday, just four days after the fire. The sanctuary was spared major damage. However, the Charlotte Fire Department estimates about $250,000 worth of damage was done to the rest of the campus.

"Pretty much the whole church was affected," Sr. Fire Investigator David Williams said. "With some degree of smoke damage. One wing of the church sustained significant fire damage."

The pastor of the church was called about the fire early Wednesday morning. "When I got here," Briar Creek Baptist Church pastor Mannix Kinsey said. "I was even amazed to see that the flames were so high. I am thinking 'Oh my goodness, this church is going to be destroyed.' But thank God the damage that was done wasn't as bad as we thought it could be."

Part of the investigation will be to determine if this was a hate crime. There are about 85 people who call Briar Creek their home church and Kinsey says the church is diverse but is mainly African American.

He prays this will not be deemed a hate crime. "Just the climate," Kinsey said. "And we are still talking about this same issue and this is 2015. We all have to consider what else do we need to do to actually be able to work together."

Neighbors don't believe this was a hate crime. "There's no hate," Neighbor Sam Triantis said. "Here we have 200 nationalities in this neighborhood and we get along just fine."

The Metrolina Baptist Association is assisting the church. Officials say the church camp may be transferred to another building so the camp can continue.

Other churches are now asking what can be done to help. "Ready to serve in anyway we can," Metrolina Baptist Assoc. Exec. Director Bob Lowman, Jr. said. "Trying to encourage and pray for the pastor and leaders here at the church."

While investigators try to piece what happened, the pastor has a message for the arsonist. "Honestly I can speak for this church," the pastor said. "That we've already forgiven them and we want to move forward. And we are hoping this is an opportunity for Christ to show himself in their hearts."

Officials are asking anyone with information in the arson case to call investigators at 704-336-2441 or Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600. A reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest, officials say.

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