Even With a Suspect in Custody, a String of Church Fires Remains Confounding

The New Life Missionary Baptist Church, the site of the fifth church fire in two weeks.
The New Life Missionary Baptist Church, the site of the fifth church fire in two weeks. Steve Truesdell

The arsonist delivered his first message at the side door of a small church on a darkened street. Liquid chemicals splattered across the entranceway. The spark of flame glowed orange and began to grow.

The Reverend James Thomas was home on the evening of October 8 when the church's former pastor, Bea McFall, called him to say something had tripped the alarm at Bethel Non Denominational Church. He started to head out the door but decided to dial police first and let them know. He was surprised to learn they were already there.

The church sits across from a row of vacant brick bungalows that flank the whitewashed block building like a shadow. An aging sign marking the boundary of northern St. Louis County cities Jennings and Pine Lawn is nearly unreadable after the sun sets and before a streetlight down the block switches on. Neighbors say it's peaceful at night.

"You hear shooting all around — all around, but not on this street," 58-year-old Charles Bell says.

That night, officers had the corner of Lillian Avenue and Wilborn Drive blocked off when Thomas arrived, but they waved him through. It was a nightmare scene.

The strobing lights of fire trucks bounced off Bethel's walls. Thomas could make out three or four patrol cars, another three or four fire engines and a police bomb-squad unit. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives soon joined them.

The side door facing the vacant houses across the street was charred and broken where firefighters had forced their way inside. Smoke had stained the wall above a sooty black.

Thomas remembered feeling shock, and then relief, when he learned only the door had burned. A cop told the 47-year-old pastor someone had leaned a phone book against the entrance, sprayed the door with a flammable liquid and set it on fire.

In the confusion, Thomas kept wondering why anyone would try to burn their church.

"We don't have any enemies," he said later. "At least, not that I know of."

The fire was on a Thursday night, and Thomas decided to cancel that Sunday's services to focus on getting the church boarded up and insurance paperwork started. He originally assumed the fire was some sort of terrible teenage prank, but he began to suspect darker forces were at work.

"We say 'the enemy,'" Thomas explained. "Satan has to use a man."

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