UPDATE: 7 church fires in 3 weeks being investigated - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

UPDATE: 7 church fires in 3 weeks being investigated

Pastor of Fellowship of Prairie Creek Church. Pastor of Fellowship of Prairie Creek Church.
ATF Special Agent Tom Crowley ATF Special Agent Tom Crowley

By Morgan Chesky - bio | email
Posted by Ellen Krafve - bio | email

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - New Year's Day, the church fires across East Texas began. Now, more than 30 ATF agents are sifting through the churches that have burned, doubling a $5,000 reward to $10,000 for any information leading to an arrest.

Investigations continue in Canton and Athens where two church fires happened New Year's Day. Last week, Grace Community and Lake Athens Baptist Church were in flames, now determined arson. Tyland Baptist Church and First Church of Christ Scientist burned over the weekend - both ruled arson. And, the seventh church blaze was Wednesday morning in Lindale at Fellowship of Prairie Creek Church, also determined to be arson.

They are seven churches in separate towns with different denominations. Their only connection? The flames.

"Any time you have one church fire it's serious," said ATF Special Agent Tom Crowley.

ATF and local fire authorities are still hesitating to link all the fires, but they did try to answer the question of why.

"Reasons people like fire are wide variety of reasons so what we have to do is try to pinpoint who is doing this and why," explained Crowley. "What is concerning is the brazen nature of this."

It is a characteristic displayed at Wednesday's fire at Fellowship of Prairie Creek Church - just off heavily traveled Highway 69. Firefighters responded while East Texans drove to work. And, the Tyler church fires of last weekend happened in early evening hours.

"That's what makes this so dangerous," said Crowley. "People could have been in these churches."

More than 30 ATF agents have split field duties, interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence at sites which will later be sent to the ATF lab in San Francisco for further testing.

"The ultimate purpose is to convict the perpetrators in court," said Crowley. "In order to do that you've got to be sure to work the scene properly, make sure all evidence is taken care of."

Before investigators could even begin, site safety was ensured, but some churches left little to work with.

"[The fire] totally destroyed the ones in Tyler," he said. "Their roofs were gone and totally gutted inside."

Progress is being made. As of Thursday, investigators say they have completed the majority of the work at the scenes of Tyland Baptist Church and First Church of Christ Scientist. As for the latest church blaze in Lindale, the investigation continues.

"I don't have any information to describe it as suspicious or not but because of the situation that has been happening in East Texas," said Crowley. "We're taking it very seriously."

It's an attitude East Texans are sharing.

ATF and local authorities are holding daily press conferences to relay updates on the investigation. Authorities say that you should not hesitate reporting any activity out of the ordinary near churches.

In the last two years, your tips have helped put dozens of wanted fugitives behind bars as part of the KLTV 7 Crimefighters program. That is the kind of effort that may be needed to stop these fires. In fact, we have given hours of raw footage of the fires to authorities, in the hopes it may provide a clue. So, if you see or know of any suspicious activity, call the Tyler ATF office.

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