Thursday, February 25, 2010

 

 

 

  Smoke clears – arsonists caught
Motive still unknown in 10 ET church fires;
authorities reveal Canton church first arson
By Julie Vaughan
Monitor Staff Writer

TYLER–After an almost two-month investigation into a string of church fires across East Texas, two arrests were made Saturday night.
Jason Robert Bourque, 19, of Lindale, and Daniel George McAllister, 21, of Ben Wheeler, were arraigned Monday on charges of arson with the intent to damage a place of worship in Judge Christi Kennedy’s 114th district courtroom in Tyler.

ArsonBourque.jpg (70163 bytes)  ArsonMcAllister.jpg (53485 bytes)
Jason Robert Bourque                         Daniel George McAllister

Both will be represented by court-appointed attorneys. The young men are being held in the Smith County Jail under $10 million bond each.
Bourque was arrested in Van Zandt County, and McAllister was arrested in San Antonio then transported back to Smith County.
Long-time friends, at one time, both men attended the First Baptist Church of Ben Wheeler.
Bourque graduated from Van High School in 2008, where he was a state debate champion for the school, and later enrolled at the University of Texas at Tyler.
McAllister had also attended high school in Van.
Authorities said a combination of tips from the public and investigation into the string of arsons led to the arrests during a press conference Sunday afternoon.
“The tips proved to be fruitful,” Smith County Deputy Tony Dana said.
Three “people of interest” whose sketches were released by federal agents Feb. 12 are not connected with the arsons, authorities said Sunday.
Dana credited the teamwork of law enforcement from multiple agencies in multiple counties for their efforts in their work on this case.
“Teamwork paid off and these individuals were apprehended,” Dana said.
He went on to thank the various agencies who worked tirelessly and “never gave up” during this investigation.
“To God be the glory,” Dana said in closing remarks.
An East Texas Church Arson Task Force was established to investigate the 10 church fires that began Jan. 1.
The Task Force was made up of officials from ATFE (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives), Texas Rangers, Texas Department of Public Safety, Athens Police Department, Athens Fire Department, Henderson County Fire Marshal, Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, Lindale Fire Marshal and Lindale Police Department.
Also, the Smith County Fire Marshal, Smith County Sheriff’s Office, Tyler Police Department, Tyler Fire Department, Van Zandt County Fire Marshal, Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
The task force worked cases in a three-county area covering 2,648 square miles and monitored about 713 churches.
A hotline was also set up and a $25,000 reward offered for information on the arsons.
“Clearly, this effort shows that Texas law enforcement has mastered the art and science of working together,” Department of Public Safety Steven McCraw said. “Everyone did a tremendous job.”
McCraw said the two men are being charged with the Feb. 8 arson of Dover Baptist Church in Smith County. More charges are expected, as evidence links the two men to the nine other fires.
He said the investigation followed numerous leads. (See “Investigators make case” on front page.)
“Church arsons are a despicable and cowardly act,” McCraw said.
“Arson is a devastating crime,” Dallas ATFE Special Agent in Charge Robert Champion said.
It was the partnership that formed between law enforcement agencies which helped in finding these suspects, he added.
Likewise, the solidarity of the communities and the long enduring hours spent locally on the investigation were also key to these arrests, Champion said.
“East Texans should be very proud,” he added.
McCraw said three search warrants were issued during the arrest and apprehension process of the suspects.
Champion confirmed that the New Year’s Day fire at Little Hope Baptist Church, located on Van Zandt County Road 4106, was arson.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said both men could face state and federal charges.
The church fires are regarded as first-degree felonies and carry a penalty of five to 99 years to life in prison upon conviction.
In addition to 10 church fires, three more churches were targeted with attempted break-ins. Investigators believe these are also connected to the suspects.
According to a press release from the Texas Department of Public Safety, “a call to a task force tip line alerted investigators to the two men.”
Churches damaged by fire included:
• Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton on Jan. 1; later that same day, Faith Baptist Church in Athens was torched.
• Grace Community Church and the Lake Athens Baptist Church, both in Athens, burned two hours apart Jan. 11-12,
• Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler, Jan.16,
• First Church of Christ, Scientist in Tyler, Jan. 17,
• Prairie Creek Fellowship in Lindale, Jan. 20,
• Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point, Feb. 4,
• Dover Baptist Church in Tyler, and the Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Lindale, both burned Feb. 8.
Attempted break-ins were noted at Heritage Baptist Church in Tyler Feb. 7, and Clear View Baptist Church and Pine Brook Baptist Church, both in Tyler, Feb. 8.
“The arsons in these communities have been devastating, but the citizens have been resilient and aided each other and the investigation,” Champion added.

Investigators make case against church arson suspects
Monitor Staff Reports
TYLER–Some of the evidence officers have gathered against two young men suspected in the string of 10 church arsons throughout East Texas includes DNA, boot and shoe prints, surveillance video and a carving on a bathroom stall.
According to arresting documents obtained by the Tyler Morning Telegraph, access to several churches was gained by smashing the glass doors with a nearby rock.
DNA samples taken from these at different locations all matched.
At the Dover Baptist Church, investigators found a boot print on a door that had been kicked in. The print matched other boot prints found at other East Texas church fires over the past two months. The boot was identified as being a Red Wing boot.
Texas Ranger Brent Davis stated in documents that he showed a family member a boot that matched the sole and boot size of 21-year-old Daniel George McAllister.
As evidence started pointing to individuals, federal agents contacted 19-year-old Jason Bourque at his residence. While speaking to Bourque in the garage, agents saw a pair of muddy Sketchers sports shoes, which were consistent with shoe prints found at several church fire scenes.
According to search warrants, some of the fires were started with hymnals and other materials found in the churches. There were also many fire starting points at a single church.
Evidence gathered from video surveillance places Bourque and McAllister at the R. Tiger Express Exxon at State Highway 110 and Interstate 20 when the Dover Baptist Church fire was discovered.
Bourque also appears on another surveillance video at a convenience store near the Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church later that same night.
After news reports of the first fire at Little Hope Church in Canton the morning of Jan. 1, being undetermined as to cause, a carving on a bathroom stall in the Atwood’s Ranch and Home Store on Loop 323 was discovered Feb. 14.
An inverted cross in flames, with the words “Little Hope was Arson” was carved there. Video surveillance from the store showed Bourque entering it with his father. He made his way to the restroom, where the carving was later discovered by store personnel.
Investigators had not released their findings on the Little Hope fire, the warrant states. “Therefore, (it) would not have been known to anyone else other than the fire starter.”
An informant turned in photographs of guitars in McAllister’s possession, which were identified as those stolen from the Lake Athens Baptist Church, which burned Jan. 11.
The same informant said the suspect purchased a one-way ticket to San Antonio Feb. 10. McAllister was arrested in San Antonio Feb. 20 and transported to Smith County.
Having gathered conclusive evidence, Davis sought arrest warrants for Bourque and McAllister. The young men were arrested Sunday morning and charged with starting the fire at the Dover Baptist Church Feb. 8.
While area churches can rest easier, those close to the case say there is still a lot of work left to do.


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