For weeks, church congregants in rural Alabama were on high alert, eager to find out who was burning down their churches. The answer, authorities now say, was three college students who took a prank too far.

Agents capped a month of tedious police work Wednesday when they arrested the three friends in connection with nine church arsons that had spread fear through rural Alabama.

According to court filings, the first arsons started as "a joke" that got out of hand. The other fires were apparently an attempt to throw off the massive arson investigation.

Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church, one of the churches burned, said he heard that the suspects were promising students from good families.

"We really are concerned about them as people," he said. "I would just like to know what they were thinking."

Two of the suspects were identified as Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College. Matthew Lee Cloyd, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also was arrested.

Dr. David Pollick, president of Birmingham-Southern College, said in statement that Moseley and DeBusk were suspended and banned from campus. He called the arson attacks "mindless cruelty."

"The entire community of Birmingham-Southern College — students, faculty, and staff — pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor," he said.

Acquaintances said DeBusk and Moseley were both amateur actors who were known as pranksters and dreamed of becoming stars. They performed in campus plays and appeared in a documentary film.

The arson attacks apparently began when the three got into Cloyd's sport utility vehicle for a night of deer shooting in Bibb County on Feb. 2, according to Walker Johnson, a federal agent who investigated the fires.

Moseley told agents that the three set fire to five Baptist churches in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it "as a joke and it got out of hand."

Moseley also told agents the four fires in west Alabama were set four days later "as a diversion to throw investigators off," an attempt that "obviously did not work," the court papers said.

A judge ordered the three held until a hearing Friday.

Investigators had said earlier that they were looking for two men seen in a dark SUV near a few of the church fires, and documents show Cloyd drove a green Toyota SUV.

Tire tracks found at the scene of six church fires allegedly matched the type of tires on Cloyd's Toyota: a BF Goodrich All Terrain model.

Jim Collins at Cahaba Tires in Pelham said agents arrived Tuesday looking for records of those who had bought the tire in recent months. He said he had sold it four times — and one of the customers was Cloyd's mother.

Agents spoke with Cloyd's parents, Kimberly and Michael Cloyd. The father, a physician, said his son admitted that "he knew who did it and he was there," according to an affidavit. Then after the arrests, Moseley described how the church arsons unfolded, the affidavit said.

"We pushed and pushed and pushed until we could make the break," said Jim Cavanaugh, regional head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "This is a very difficult case."

DeBusk and Moseley were arrested on the same day they were featured in the campus newspaper. The article discussed their performances in campus plays, a documentary and their work in the film they had hopes of screening this fall.

Moseley wanted to head for Los Angeles after graduation, and DeBusk might have accompanied him.

"This is our crawling before we can walk," Moseley told The Hilltop News.

"You're crawlin', I'm walking," said DeBusk. "I crawled in high school."

Cloyd, who previously attended Birmingham-Southern, transferred last fall to UAB but was not believed to be involved in acting or film making with DeBusk and Moseley.

An attorney for Cloyd, Tommy Spina, declined comment on the charges, but added: "This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime."

A lawyer for DeBusk did not immediately return a message seeking comment, and court files did not list an attorney for Moseley.

The three were jailed on federal charges of conspiracy and setting fire to a single church — Ashby Baptist. If convicted, each count carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Additional charges are possible, authorities said.

Gov. Bob Riley said after the arrests that the arsons did not appear to be "any type of conspiracy against organized religion" or the Baptist faith.

"The faith-based community can rest a little easier," he said.