Three suspects were arrested Wednesday in connection with a string of rural church fires that plagued Alabama in early February in what one of the suspects is saying started out as a "joke" that went too far.
Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, was in federal custody along with Benjamin Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19. Moseley and DeBusk, both students at the Birmingham Southern College, were arrested and arraigned earlier in the day, facing charges of conspiracy and individual counts in the arsons at five Bibb County churches and four in west Alabama, officials said.
Moseley and DeBusk were being held in custody until their hearing set for Friday. Cloyd was expected to appear in court as soon as the judge's docket would allow.
An affidavit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said Moseley told agents on Wednesday that he, Cloyd and DeBusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd's Toyota sport utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it "as a joke and it got out of hand," according to the affidavit.
Moseley also told agents the four church fires in west Alabama were set "as a diversion to throw investigators off," an attempt that "obviously did not work," the affidavit said.
“What we have is a ring of terror that has toppled and come to an end," Alabama’s Attorney General Troy King said. "A man’s evil deeds will find him out. Today I believe they have.”
The day before the arrests, agents spoke with Cloyd's parents, Kimberly and Michael Cloyd. The father said his son admitted that "he knew who did it and he was there," according to the affidavit.
Although the ATF offered a $10,000 reward for tips in the case, authorities say Wednesday’s arrests came from “good-old fashioned police work.”
Rep. Spencer Bachus said he believed that religion was not a motive in the fires said Wednesday in an interview with FOX News Radio.
A joint federal-state task force has been investigating nine rural church arsons since Feb. 3. Those nine involved church break-ins, with fires started inside. They also were all rural Baptist churches and in both black and white communities.
Police had been looking for a pair of "bosom buddies," possibly two white males seen in a sport utility vehicle near a number of the fires.
Five churches were hit on Feb. 3 in Bibb County, three of which were destroyed. Four more churches were hit Feb. 7 in various counties, two of which were destroyed. In several cases, the blazes were set at the pulpits and altars. All were set afire during the pre-dawn hours of the day.
A 10th rural Baptist church fire, in Lamar County, has been ruled arson but is not believed to be connected to the others. It was discovered on Feb. 11.
Cassie Carothers and the Associated Press contributed to this report.