The following interview was conducted just a few days before Christmas and modified somewhat in the weeks afterward. At the time, I wondered if the fallout of a nasty presidential election might include a resurgence in church arsons—one of the nation’s most dogged and perplexing hate crimes. A fire that gutted a Baptist church in Greenville, Mississippi had me particularly worried—graffiti on the scene seemed to tie the crime directly to the election. That case would end up taking a strange turn.
I wondered if law enforcement agencies shared my heightened concerns. (And with ISIS now threatening to burn churches, perhaps I wasn’t worried enough!) This was the general atmosphere when I spoke with Michael P. Knight, a public information officer and special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s (ATF) Nashville Field Division.
Aaron Even: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions about the ongoing problem and mystery of church arsons in America.
Michael P. Knight: Sure.
AE: To begin with the elephant in the room: We’ve just come out of a really tense and divisive election following a year marked by racially charged shootings and protests, and to me, at least, it feels like there’s the possibility of renewed targeting of churches by people with an ax to grind. What’s your professional perspective on this?
MK: ATF works along with other federal and state agencies in terms of hate crimes. The actual jurisdiction for hate crimes falls under another agency, but if there are fires, shootings or crimes of violence then we become involved. As far as the number of incidents over the past six months, there’s always a large percentage of church incidents across the country. So it may not be directly related to the current atmosphere, but we do have a number of church fires. Some have been hate crimes, while others were accidental or criminal in nature but not related to hate crimes.
AE: Good statistics on church arsons are hard to come by, but a recent Pew Center analysis of ATF data suggests that 51% of church fires over the past 20 years were due to arson. When you look closer at the data, that’s approximately one incident every three days. Should we be surprised by that?
MK: The numbers of church arson incidents rise and fall. They’re cyclical, and not necessarily related to any specific event or timeframe in the country. And the percentages differ for a variety of reasons. Recently the numbers have increased as far as official determinations of arson, but there’s a whole variety of motives that are related to that.
AE: Would you say that 51% is ballpark-accurate?
MK: When it comes to numbers, the thing to understand is not all church fires are reported, especially in rural areas. If it’s a small fire and no extensive damage is done, then it may not be showing up in the reports. So the numbers are not necessarily going to be 100% accurate based on underreporting of these incidents.
AE: You mean the real numbers could be even higher?
MK: The numbers more than likely are going to be higher.
AE: Wow. For me, at least, that’s surprising news. It also brings a story to mind. Last week, my wife and I drove to a local Catholic church to drop off a food donation. It was Sunday afternoon after the masses had ended, the sun was going down. We parked in the lot and entered the sanctuary—the doors were open. Hunted around for the donation box, walked through a hallway—totally empty. As we left a few minutes later, I realized we hadn’t encountered a single person. Outside, I examined the building and saw no cameras. Now I get it, a church should be open to the public. But are there practical security measures churches should take knowing that arson is a continuing problem?
MK: Well, there’s a delicate balance between hardening security and respecting the privacy of the individuals attending. So that balance has to be made, and there’s no specific law that states a church has to be under certain types of security measures–it’s up to the individual denomination or parish itself. Houses of worship invite individuals to come in for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily during service times. Cameras, or hard security, may take away from the individual right or from the mission of the church with regard to the public. So that’s a fine balance.
Of course, there are suggested measures that they can take at minimal cost. For example, cutting back trees or shrubbery so that law enforcement can see the building clearly, using a single door entrance with a check-in or sign-in area, posting cameras over exterior areas such as parking lots—these are suggestions, and of course they help investigators but they also help the security of the church.
AE: Speaking of investigators, I imagine the popularity of CSI-style crime shows on TV might lead to an assumption that you guys have all sorts of cool high-tech tools that enable you to solve arson cases quickly and with absolute certainty.
MK: Well, we’re looking at technology in terms of investigations, and we have our certified fire investigators who have extensive training and education in fire science. Just the fire part of a crime scene is extremely important, and that includes laboratory services, and it includes modern, up-to-date fire science techniques on the investigative side. We augment that with human contacts and interviews. So it’s a mixture of human intelligence and leveraging technology—which includes social media as well.
AE: Social media? How is that used?
MK: In terms of up putting out information, offering rewards, telling the public en masse and in a timely fashion about an incident that’s occurring. That may be to stay away from a particular area. For example, with the Gatlinburg wildfires, not only was there an evacuation of the city but also, during that time, we had to let people know about different incidents that were occurring. So for us, social media is a very quick way to put out information and also to get a response back from the public, either anonymously or not, about potential persons of interest.
AE: I’ve read the Gatlinburg fire is now being investigated as a possible arson. Can you explain the difference in motivation between people who start a wildfire and those who would burn a church?
MK: The motivations for any arson crime—for a wildfire, church, business, hotel—it all depends on that personal connection. If it’s an intentionally set fire, it’s that personal connection that the individual has with the entity that has been set on fire. It may be a person who was fired from a company, or who was kicked out of a particular area for trespassing, or who has a dislike for a company or a government agency. So the motivations vary, but the thing that arsonists typically have in common is that personal connection with the entity they have targeted.
AE: By the way, when we use the term “church arson,” I think most of us picture a Christian church in our minds. But there are plenty of mosques and synagogues in this country. Do you see evidence that they are targeted in comparable numbers?
MK: The number of arsons affecting Christian churches is probably greater than others, based on sheer numbers, whereas the motivation, it goes back to that personal connection. And it goes back to security. The individual may have the motivation but not have the opportunity. Why? It may be because certain denominations have higher security, higher presence of protective measures put in place. Also, there’s location: if a house of worship is located in a city, say in a downtown area, the likelihood of a fire being intentionally set is far lower. That’s because it’s a highly populated area, where someone may catch them on camera which might lead to their arrest.
AE: So in the mind of the arsonist, his decision to burn a church may have more to do with location and opportunity than a particular denomination?
MK: Right. But that circles back to motivation—whether the motivation is based on ethnic or denomination lines versus just an opportunity to burn something. So the motivation is very crucial in terms of the investigation as well as the prosecution of these cases.
AE: The recent church arson in Greenville, Mississippi seems like a good reminder that motivations can also be hidden. (A spray-painted message read “Vote Trump,” but a member of the congregation was later charged with setting the fire.)
MK: ATF Certified Fire Investigators work in conjunction with the investigators from law enforcement agencies to determine the motivations of particular fire scenes. The fire science is matched with the results from interviews and any information received by the public. Opportunities are matched with the motives to determine a list of potential persons of interest. The motives of an individual may be related to a larger scale thought process of an organization or as an isolated incident. So we have to look at it from 360 degrees: individuals who may be for a particular candidate, against a particular candidate, or a copycat situation where somebody may be misdirecting us.
AE: By misdirection you mean the spray paint on the wall is there to lead investigators astray?
MK: Right. So again, we have to look at all those possibilities, 360 degrees of our investigation. We don’t focus solely on one individual area.
AE: It must be hard when the public wants immediate information, immediate results, to pursue all angles in an investigation because that takes time.
MK: That is correct. Everyone wants to have information put out to the public, the congregation and to the church leadership as soon as possible. But when you’re dealing with the science, and in particular fire science, evidence has to go to a laboratory, the laboratory has to prioritize their resources and we typically wait on those results. If it’s an intentionally set fire those lab results are going to be challenged in a court of law. Additionally, our interview process is very extensive, and oftentimes the interviews go from state to state and may even go international. So it takes time.
The thing to understand is that ATF and the other agencies investigating house of worship fires, we are conducting investigations, on site, whatever the weather, making sure that the thoroughness of the investigation is complete. And we want these cases resolved. We will not close the case of a house of worship fire until it’s completely finished, even if it takes years and years, based on the information. So the case will always remain open, and we will put all our resources into solving it.
Aaron R. Even is the author of He Comes In Fire (Atticus Books)