Arson investigator reveals how ETX church arsonists were caught

Published: Feb. 13, 2011 at 1:36 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2011 at 11:44 PM CST
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By Layron Livingston - bio | email

TYLER, TEXAS (KLTV) - The pressure was on to make the fires stop. "We didn't want to see another fire," said Larry Smith. Smith is now retired, but was still working as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) when he began investigating arsons at East Texas churches. However, at the time of the blazes, investigators felt one more fire could give them what they needed--the clues--to pin down those responsible.

Smith was inside the interview room the day Daniel McAllister was arrested. McAllister would later be convicted of multiple counts of arson and attempted arson.

During a taped admission, McAllister admitted to investigators he helped Jason Bourque burn down one church after another.  Lake Athens Baptist Church was one of those churches--the first scene Smith worked, last January.

"[McAllister] said they were in that church for 45 minutes," said Smith. He and Bourque ate and drank from the church refrigerator, they stole cash, as well as a video recorder.

Investigators would later discover five different fires were set inside Lake Athens Baptist.

"The stacking of hymnals and Bibles, pew cushions and quilting materials in the baptistry," Smith said became standard operating procedure for the arsonists.

"[ATF dogs] would alert, we'd send the evidence off to laboratory and we'd come back with negative results," Smith said. The dogs are "food reward dogs," meaning they're handlers feed them by hand before and after their trained to assist at fire scenes, sniffing out accelerant.

Smith said the problem was the handler's were using hand-sanitizer to clean their hands. It wasn't until Smith interviewed Daniel McAllister that he found out he and Bourque had used Germ-X hand-sanitizer to start some of the fires.

"We put two drops down, and did a test burn on it. Two drops of that burned for five minutes."

Smith said the revelation forever changed ATF dog-handler protocol.

Footprints also turned up at the Lake Athens fire site. They'd eventually be matched up to prints found on other scorched church lots. "We got three positive matches of the Sketchers shoe in this investigation," said Smith. "You burn God's house, it's only a matter of time."

Those Sketchers were eventually found inside Jason Bourque's garage. A tip led investigators to Bourque.

"A person called in and said that her husband had been doing vehicle burglaries with Bourque and McAllister."

One of the young men had mentioned the fires, but the witness later recanted. So investigators started surveilling Bourque.

24-hour teams followed him for days. They'd even follow him to class at Tyler Junior College. In fact, Smith said it was a cigarette butt one of those teams collected on campus that linked Bourque's DNA to the fires.

"We had people sitting right next to him."

Once that evidence came back as a positive match, Bourque and McAllister were arrested.

We also talked to Smith about the sketches authorities released just days before they arrested their men. He said they were persons-of-interest. Two of the men were seen outside Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point before it burned.

The third person was seen outside First Church of Christ, Scientist in Tyler.

At least two of the men had upside-down, flaming cross tattoos. Smith said Bourque may have tried to use that to his advantage when he scratched that symbol, along with the message, "Little Hope was arson" in the stall of the Tyler Atwood's store. Smith said Bourque may have been trying to throw investigators off.

Little Hope Baptist Church near Canton was originally ruled an electrical fire. Investigators said they knew days before word of the restroom message got out that Little Hope was arson because they'd been following Bourque. They'd also reopened the Little Hope investigation.

By that time, investigators had already questioned Bourque. They were following him the day he went into Atwood's.

Smith said a search of Bourque's laptop revealed he'd been watching our reports of the fires. "It may have started as little burglaries, but I truly believe Jason Bourque enjoyed the publicity," said Smith.

What Bourque did not realize was the message he left inside the Atwood's restroom would be just another piece of evidence for investigators to use against him and Daniel McAllister.

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