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

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It is human nature to try and find meaning in misfortune and tragedy. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in God's faithful. The belief in a master plan, in an unerring higher power, demands trust in the idea that bad things happen for a reason.

In the weeks before Jackson's arrest, Christian leaders wrestled with the small bursts of wickedness on their doorsteps. Maybe God wanted to drive them outside into the world. Maybe He wanted them to pay closer attention to people struggling on the fringes of sanity. Maybe the fires were meant to bind congregations together through a common suffering.

No one worked harder to bring attention to the fires than the Reverend Rodrick Burton, the head pastor at New Northside Baptist Church. Broad shouldered with an easy charisma, Burton became the public face of the attacks.

His had been the second church to be hit. The fire crawled up the church's beautiful white doors in the early-morning dark of October 10. Associate pastor Steve Williams, who lives a few blocks away in Jennings, was awoken shortly before 3 a.m. by firefighters looking for a key so they wouldn't have to smash through the stained-glass panels. Williams, 57, hurried outside and sprinted through the dark.

"I thought the church was going up in flames," he said.

click to enlarge The Reverend Rodrick Burton at the New Northside Baptist Church in Jennings. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Doyle Murphy
  • The Reverend Rodrick Burton at the New Northside Baptist Church in Jennings.

He was relieved to find firefighters extinguishing the last of a small blaze at the church's main entrance. The fire had once again failed to spread into the sanctuary, but the attack on Northside was the first indication of a serial arsonist at work.

Burton was used to random problems in the neighborhood. One of their buses had been shot up, and bullets had twice struck the church from gun battles down the street. The fire, however, was aimed directly at them. Burton saw it as an affront to all Americans, and in interviews with reporters from across the country, he spoke out against what he saw as the "apathetic" reaction of people outside of the north St. Louis neighborhoods. The fires continued.

"Somebody's got to be intentional about reaching over lines," he said the week after his church was hit.

Burton created the hashtag #stlchurchfire2015 to marshal attention on Twitter. He showed up to take pictures and pray at Bethel and then at the crime scenes that followed his own: St. Augustine Catholic Church, New Testament Church of Christ, New Life Missionary Baptist Church, Ebenezer Lutheran and the Shrine of St. Joseph.

His message soon began to take hold. Nearly 200 people on October 21 filled Northside for a prayer vigil. Mayor Francis Slay, metro police chief Sam Dotson, county police chief Jon Belmar and fire chief Dennis Jenkerson all took seats under the sanctuary's vaulted ceilings. By then, six churches had been hit by arsonists. The fact that five had primarily black congregations was not lost on the assembly.

As Dotson walked to the pulpit, a bearded white guy shouted, "Black lives matter, as you know, Chief Dotson. He's got to know that. He's got to say that." His voice began to trail off as heads turned.

"You're right," Burton responded. "Black lives matter. White lives matter. Latino lives matter. Gay lives matter. Straight lives matter. All lives matter. We're standing on that in this church today."

Dotson assured the audience he knew exactly what was at stake.

click to enlarge The foyer of New Life Church. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • The foyer of New Life Church.

"It's impossible to ignore that this crime aggravates wounds that have not properly healed and that we all remember," Dotson said. "Fires in churches awaken some of the saddest memories in our country's history, and anyone who knows that troubled part of American history must regard this as this as the most serious thing we're facing right now."

Following the service, fire Chief Jenkerson rode to a firehouse on West Florissant Avenue where firefighters were about to drive into the neighborhoods and hand out flyers asking for information about the fires.

Each handbill showed the silhouette of a man slinking away from orange flames. "BURN an ARSONIST!" was printed in big white letters above a phone number for the Missouri Arson Hotline: 1-800-39-ARSON.

Jenkerson was hopeful the campaign would yield some useful information. The arsonist and his motivations remained a mystery, the chief said.

"Are they testing us or not?" he said. "We don't know. At this point we don't have any leads. We don't know if they're male or female, black or white."

That wasn't completely correct. Investigators did have a few leads, but they were keeping them quiet. A surveillance camera near the site of the fifth fire, New Life Missionary Baptist Church, had captured footage of a two-tone, older-model sedan close to the time of the attack. Investigators had also recovered samples of the accelerant used on New Life and Ebenezer.

A third clue was the location of the fires. The tight cluster of churches had at least given them a general area to target in the northern neighborhoods of the city and county. Firefighters focused the handouts on wide zones surrounding the hot spots, hoping to flush out tips in the midst of the arsonist's stomping grounds.

Fewer than twelve hours later, the doors of another church burned.

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