BOLIGEE, Ala. – Gov. Bob Riley said Wednesday that the nine church fires in rural Alabama during the past week appear linked, as investigators checked out witness reports of two men in a sport-utility vehicle near a number of the fires.
Authorities have ruled arson in five Baptist church fires Friday in Bibb County just south of Birmingham. Four more fires at Baptist churches on Tuesday in western Alabama had similar patterns — doors kicked in, fires set near the altar — to those last week.
"I think they are connected, at least from what I've seen," Riley said.
He said he sees no evidence of a "grand conspiracy" against religion or Baptist churches. Jim Cavanaugh, regional director of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said there could be a "thrill motive" behind the arsons.
Cavanaugh said witnesses "on more than one occasion" have mentioned seeing two white men in a dark SUV near the church fires. But he said some witnesses have mentioned other vehicles, and investigators aren't looking solely for a dark SUV.
The four churches that burned Tuesday all have black congregations. Four of the five churches set afire Friday have white congregations.
Two members of Old Union Baptist Church in Bibb County said they saw a dark SUV driving slowly by the church at Brierfield when they arrived moments after the fire was set around 4 a.m. Friday.
"They were looking at the church when I spotted them," one of the witnesses, Alvin Lawley, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "It was like they wanted to see what they had done."
Lawley said he got in his vehicle to briefly pursue the SUV but it sped away.
He and member Hilman Moses had hurried to the church after being alerted that other church fires along rural roads had erupted early Friday. Neither man saw the SUV's license plate.
Riley, who visited the four west Alabama churches Wednesday, spoke with pastors and church members. He urged patience.
"We think this is solvable. Can we do it today? No," he said outside Dancy First Baptist, which was damaged.