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

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click to enlarge Bethel Non Denominational Church in Jennings was the first house of worship hit in a string of arsons. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Bethel Non Denominational Church in Jennings was the first house of worship hit in a string of arsons.

The attack on Bethel turned out to be the first in a string of arsons at places of worship in the metro area. Doors burned at seven churches in fourteen days as investigators frantically chased after a phantom. Cops and firefighters routinely arrived minutes after he had gone, discovering his handiwork in the sound of automatic alarms and the flashing light of flames.

City and county police detectives worked together with investigators from the St. Louis Fire Department and the ATF. They consulted profilers and prodded the public for tips.

"We believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message," the ATF advised in a joint statement with CrimeStoppers.

The arsonist's signature was simultaneously simple and puzzling. He poured a chemical accelerant — confirmed to be gasoline in at least two of the fires — across the entryway, lit a fire and left as the blaze charred the door from the bottom up. The crudeness of his work was unmistakeable. And the intent of his message was unclear, although it was delivered again and again.

The churches were always empty. Nobody was hurt.

The first five churches served primarily black congregations near Goodfellow Boulevard. Their proximity to Ferguson, which is just a few miles away, only added to the intrigue — and national media attention.

click to enlarge Pastor James Thomas of Bethel Non Denominational Church. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Pastor James Thomas of Bethel Non Denominational Church.

"All the churches are in the areas riiight around Ferguson," CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin told viewers.

"St. Louis's African American community is still recovering from the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and a grand jury's decision not to charge former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for pulling the trigger," the Washington Post noted in its story on the fires.

"Attacks on Churches and Women's Health Clinics Are Domestic Terrorism," blared the headline on a Slate.com essay. "We should be talking more about what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri."

None of the fires were actually in Ferguson. The sixth, at Ebenezer Lutheran, hit a racially diverse congregation — and the seventh was predominantly white. But reporters weren't the only ones eying racism as a possible motive behind the smoldering missives.

At a prayer service, Episcopalian pastor Mike Kinman addressed the situation directly.

"If we ever needed a wake-up call to believe that racism is alive in St. Louis — if this is not it, I don't know what it could be."

Exactly three weeks after the first fire, a 35-year-old black man with a history of mental illness and law-breaking was charged in two of the attacks and identified as a suspect in the other five. Bethel's pastor Thomas looked at the mugshot of David Lopez Jackson, his eyes passing over the crown tattooed in the middle of the suspect's forehead and the flames along his collarbone. Jackson's mother lives less than three blocks from the church.

"No, I've never seen him," Thomas said.

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