BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A federal judge postponed Friday's hearing to determine whether to grant bond for three college students accused of setting fires that damaged or destroyed nine rural churches in Alabama.
In a brief docket note, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Armstrong said he was delaying the hearing until 3 p.m. Wednesday at the request of lawyers for Russell Lee DeBusk Jr. and Benjamin Nathan Moseley, both 19, and 20-year-old Matthew Lee Cloyd.
The three suspects will remain in jail at least until next week on federal charges of conspiracy and burning down Ashby Baptist Church, one of nine churches that was either destroyed or damaged in early morning fires on Feb. 3 and Feb. 7.
DeBusk and Moseley, both theater students at Birmingham-Southern College, were arrested Wednesday along with Cloyd, a pre-med student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The three are accused of setting fire to nine country churches in early February.
Court documents indicate the fires began as a joke that got out of hand. Authorities say investigators believe alcohol was a factor.
Throughout the monthlong investigation, authorities said alcohol could have led to a warped bravado that sparked the arsons, and initial interviews with the suspects bore out the theory, according to one officer.
However, deputy state fire marshal Ed Paulk, who was involved in the investigation, said he did not know if alcohol was a direct factor.
"We were told by official sources ... that seemingly some drinking, some night hunting, was ultimately what led to all of this," said Randy Youngblood, the campus police chief at Birmingham-Southern College.
If convicted on federal charges, each count carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Additional charges are possible, authorities have said.
Federal and state authorities have not commented on a possible motive, beyond evidence that an apparent prank spun out of control. Defense attorneys have not commented either, but say the fires were not crimes of hate.
The students came from privileged backgrounds. Cloyd is the son of a doctor and DeBusk attended college on a theater scholarship after being voted "most dramatic" by his high school classmates in 2004. Moseley was the president of the student council in high school and his father is an elected constable.
Court documents show Cloyd told a witness this week that he and Moseley "had done something stupid" and that they set a church ablaze "as a joke." Accompanied by DeBusk, they eventually torched five churches that night in Bibb County after seeing the first fire trucks, according to the document, a sworn statement by a federal agent.
"After they lit the first two fires, it became spontaneous," said ATF regional head Jim Cavanaugh. "Excitement, thrill was the motive."
Moseley told police he and Cloyd set four more fires in west Alabama four days later "as a diversion to throw investigators off," but the plan didn't work, the agent said in the document.
Friends of the three suspects have described behavior that turned from goofy pranks to vandalism after at least one of the young men, Cloyd, began drinking more heavily last fall. Cloyd mentioned alcohol in a Web message on Facebook.com to Moseley earlier this year when he said it was "time to reconvene the season of evil."
DeBusk reportedly invited a friend to go "demon hunting" last year and claimed to be a Satanist, but the trip did not amount to much other than a night of drinking, friends said.
"All it ended up being was us playing guitar in the woods while a few of them got drunk," Jeremy Burgess, DeBusk's roommate, told The Birmingham News. "I didn't think anything of it."