BOLIGEE, Ala. – Flames were visible near the pulpit of Morning Star Baptist Church and smoke was pouring out its windows when Johnny Archibald arrived to a grimly familiar scene in Alabama.
Archibald, who lives near the Boligee church, said that when he saw his church in flames Tuesday he immediately thought of the fires that consumed five other churches last week.
"I don't know what's going on," he said. "It's just sickness."
Morning Star Baptist and three other rural Alabama churches were damaged or destroyed by fires Tuesday, making a total of nine burned churches since Friday. Authorities have no suspects or motive, but were searching for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle.
FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators are working on the assumption that all nine of the Alabama church fires are connected.
"Clearly there's a suspected link," Burrus said in Washington, D.C. "Common sense tells you there is a clear indication these fires are going to be linked."
All nine churches are Baptist, the dominant faith in the area. Four in Bibb County are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, while the other five are not.
At three of the latest burned churches, the fires appeared to erupt in the sanctuary near the altar, according to church members and authorities. Two of the fires were found to be arson.
Rich Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said more than 50 agents are now assigned to the investigation.
"This is our No. 1 priority nationally," he said.
The four latest fires took place at churches off rural roads, about 10 to 20 miles apart. They were in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where the five other churches were burned.
The FBI said it is looking into whether the Bibb County fires are a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, and state and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered.
Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said earlier that investigators believe all five Bibb County fires were linked. He said they are pursuing several leads but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."
Agents said Tuesday they were looking for a dark-colored SUV -- possibly a Nissan Pathfinder -- in connection with the blazes.
Members of one of the churches burned Friday -- the Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield -- told The Associated Press that they saw a dark Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to douse the flames.
In Boligee, Archibald said he was told by a resident that a sport-utility vehicle had been seen speeding through an intersection near the church.
By late morning, firefighters at Boligee were spraying down the smoking rubble of Morning Star Baptist. Burned to its concrete block foundation, all that remained of the wood-frame building was the front steps and handrail.