May 11, 2011


Church Burners (Pamela Colloff, May 2011, Texas Monthly)

THE FIRST CHURCH TO GO UP IN FLAMES WAS Little Hope Baptist Church, outside the East Texas town of Canton, on New Year’s Day 
2010. The small, red-brick church overlooked a quiet stretch of 
farmland, accessible only by way of meandering back roads. At around 
nine o’clock that morning, a parishioner who lived nearby spotted 
fire venting from the roof of the fellowship hall. Thick, black smoke 
drifted over Little Hope, across the neighboring pastures, and into the cold winter 
air. The local fire department raced to the scene, but the hall, which had been 
built by church members more than half a century earlier, was quickly consumed, 
its walls left scorched and blackened by the blaze.

Two hours later, flames were seen rising from the roof of Faith Church of Athens, twenty miles away. The vaulted sanctuary and everything inside—pews, a grand piano, Bibles, and a stained-glass cross—were destroyed. As Pastor Leon Wallace walked through the ruins, he could see that someone had ransacked the place; his desk had been riffled through, and $2 had been taken from the Sunday school room. Although the blaze at Little Hope was thought by the Van Zandt County fire marshal to have been sparked by a faulty electrical box, the cause of the fire at Faith Church was determined to be arson. That Sunday, shaken churchgoers crowded into Faith Church’s youth room to pray, wondering who might have been responsible and why.

Then, ten days later, on the night of January 11, smoke was seen pouring out of an open doorway at Grace Community Church, not far from Athens’s main square. Flames quickly engulfed the sanctuary, leaving it completely gutted. As firefighters struggled to put out the blaze, they received news that Lake Athens Baptist Church, six miles away, was also on fire. Pastor John E. Green watched as the sanctuary where he had baptized his great-grandchildren and led the funeral service for his wife of fifty years burned to the ground. “I knew God was going to use this to strengthen and resolve us,” Green said. “But we were fearful too. No one knew how many more churches were going to be destroyed.” In the damp clay soil, two sets of shoe prints were found: one that matched a pair of sneakers, the other, a pair of work boots.

The Texas Rangers were called in, as were federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but over the following week, three more churches were torched, two in Tyler and one in nearby Lindale. Unlike the previous targets, these churches were located in well-traveled areas. First Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, stood at the heart of Tyler’s historic Azalea District, on Broadway, the main thoroughfare in town. Some of 
the churches had been elaborately staged before being set alight. Bibles, hymnals, and pew cushions were used as kindling and were stacked around pulpits, under pianos, and inside baptisteries.

In a largely rural region where faith is an integral part of everyday life, the audacity of the arsonists stirred both panic and outrage. “Area Pastors Begin Vigilant Watches, Worried Their Churches Could Be Targeted,” read the front page of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “Area Christians Ready to Stand Ground in ‘Spiritual Battle,’ ” read another headline. Soon the hunt for the church burners—a probe that would span three counties and involve 75 federal agents, 50 investigators from the Department of Public Safety, and 30 Texas Rangers—had grown into the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history. More than one hundred troopers were called in to patrol the region’s towns and back roads, and at night, volunteers took turns keeping watch outside their churches.

There was no way to predict where or when the perpetrators would attack next; they struck at different times of day, on varying days of the week, and did not single out any particular race or denomination. Though anonymous calls came pouring into the East Texas Church Fires Tip Line and dozens of potential suspects were questioned, each lead turned out to be a dead end. Desperate for clues, undercover agents attended a prayer vigil across the street from the burned-out shell of First Church of Christ, Scientist, scanning the crowd for anyone who looked out of place. “It felt like we were being held hostage,” recalled Smith County district attorney Matt Bingham. “Everyone was holding their breath, wondering, ‘Is this going to happen again tonight? Will it be my church this time?’ ”

Two weeks passed uneventfully. Then, in the predawn hours of February 4, Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, in Wills Point, an hour’s drive west of Tyler, went up in flames. The church stood directly across the street from the local volunteer fire department. Four nights later, smoke was seen billowing from Dover Baptist Church, in a rural area northwest of Tyler. Not long after firefighters arrived, word came over the police scanner that another church, five miles down the road, Clear Spring Missionary Baptist, was ablaze. Texas Ranger Brent Davis and ATF special agent Larry Smith, the probe’s two lead investigators, raced from one fire to the next. Davis, a former trooper who had earned his Ranger badge two years earlier, and Smith, a veteran fire investigator who had worked the crash scene at the Pentagon after 9/11, looked on helplessly as Clear Spring’s roof buckled and fell, illuminating the night sky. Firefighters, who were still struggling to suppress the blaze at Dover, had not yet hauled their water and equipment to Clear Spring. “We had to stand there and watch it burn,” Smith said.

The two lawmen finally caught a lucky break on Valentine’s Day, when a customer reported some unusual graffiti in the rest­room of Atwoods Ranch and Home, a 
Tyler hardware and farm supply store. Etched into the metal partition of the handicapped stall was an inverted cross crowned with crudely drawn flames; above it, someone had scratched the words “Little Hope was arson.” Davis and Smith were elated: Because the blaze had been thought to be accidental, Little Hope had never been mentioned in news reports 
of the church fires. Only someone intimately familiar with the crimes would make such a claim.

On the grainy footage recorded by Atwoods’ security cameras the previous day, one man seen entering the restroom was immediately recognizable to investigators: nineteen-year-old Jason Bourque. ATF agents had visited the chubby, curly-haired teenager just two days earlier, following up on a tip from a friend who believed he was involved in the fires. Bourque had been under surveillance ever since, though his graffiti had escaped the attention of the federal agents who were trailing him. A former honor student, Eagle Scout, and state debate champion, Bourque hardly fit the profile of a church burner—he had, in fact, been a devout Baptist for most of his life. But Davis and Smith were certain they had found who they were looking for.

AS A KID GROWING UP near the small town of Ben Wheeler, half an hour’s drive west of Tyler, Jason Bourque possessed the certainty of a true believer. He carried a leather-bound King James Bible with him wherever he went, reading it during his lunch break at school and quoting Scripture in class to bolster any argument he tried to make. His other Bible, which he kept at home, was so well-worn by the time he reached high school that he had to reinforce it with duct tape to prevent it from falling apart. “Jason was very passionate about his faith,” said LaRue Allen, his former Boy Scout troop leader. “He argued with anyone who didn’t see the world as he did. He was very big on creationism, for example, so if you believed in evolution, he would fight you tooth and nail to bring you around to his position.” During his five years in the Scouts, Jason served as his troop’s chaplain, leading a prayer before mealtimes and a short Sunday service on weekend campouts. “Not everyone liked how aggressively he pushed his point of view, so some kids got along with him and others didn’t,” said Allen. “He was always a lightning rod.”

Jason was raised by his maternal grandparents—Bob Steel, a retired oil refinery superintendent, and his wife, Brenda—who rescued him from the chaos of his early childhood. They took Jason in at the age of four after his mother, Kim, became heavily addicted to methamphetamine and his father, Bobby, was sent to prison for selling cocaine. The Steels, by contrast, were models of respectability, and they doted on Jason, giving him the run of their 75-acre property, which had two ponds, a creek, and a swimming pool. Though they didn’t regularly attend church, Brenda hoped that a good Christian upbringing would prevent Jason from following the same self-destructive path as his parents, and she began taking him to Sunday school. After a few months of dropping him off at church, a nagging sense of guilt pushed her to stay and listen too. She also started watching charismatic preacher Joyce Meyer on television every day. “It gradually dawned on me that I wasn’t living right,” Brenda said. “Not that I was doing anything terribly wrong but that maybe God had a message for me too.”

Brenda began attending a Bible study, and when Jason was nine, she experienced an ecstatic spiritual awakening. “Joyce Meyer talks about God filling her with ‘liquid love,’ and that’s what happened to me,” Brenda said. “I wanted everyone to feel what I was feeling. I told my daughter, ‘Kim, I’ve never done drugs, but there couldn’t be any drug better than this.’ ” She and Bob were both baptized, and she immersed herself in 
Bible studies that sometimes stretched on for the whole day. “Mom couldn’t have a normal conversation,” Kim told me. “Everything led back to God and what she was reading in the Bible that day.” (Kim intermittently lived in a trailer on the Steels’ property, sometimes disappearing for extended periods of time.) But Jason liked the sense of structure their new faith provided. That summer, he returned home from a weeklong vacation Bible camp and proudly announced that he had been saved. Soon afterward he was baptized at First Baptist Church of Ben Wheeler, where the Steels signed on as Sunday school teachers and Jason got involved in the youth ministry. “We became radically committed to God and working in his kingdom,” Brenda said.

At First Baptist, Jason quickly distinguished himself. “He was brilliant—one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said a former pastor of his, who asked that his name be withheld. “He was a serious, scholarly Bible reader at a very early age. I assumed he was headed for Rice or Harvard. He had that kind of intellect.” Jason’s only shortcoming was that “everything was black and white,” recalled the pastor. “Subtleties were hard for him. He didn’t see grays.”

A voracious reader, Jason spent hours each night thumbing through books from the library. He was particularly interested in philosophy and was drawn to the writings of political thinker John Rawls, who believed in the importance of social justice. “Jason was very inquisitive,” Brenda said. “He knew something about everything.” His curiosity about the world served him well when he joined the debate team at his high school, in the nearby town of Van, where he excelled at LD—short for “Lincoln-Douglas”—debating: a one-on-one style of debate in which a particular value or philosophical principle is deliberated. (During one competition his junior year, a judge noted on his ballot: “You are too fabulous for words! Go to law school!”) Jason advanced to the state UIL Lincoln-Douglas tournament when he was a junior, winning third place. His senior year, he placed first.

Jason’s precociousness did not always endear him to his peers at Van High School, who remember him as an emotionally immature know-it-all with few social graces. “Jason wasn’t an easy person to get along with,” said Sarah Hunt-Nichols, a former member of the debate team. “He would argue about anything—‘No, the sky isn’t blue’—just to argue.” The Steels, who had done well in the stock market, gave him a silver Mustang convertible when he was seventeen, a detail that cast him as a rich kid in the minds of his classmates, even though the car was six years old. Jason did little to discourage the impression; he cultivated a preppy image, wearing khakis and polo shirts, and he always had spending money, even though he never held a job. He seemed to enjoy getting under people’s skin. His junior year, he started a My­Space page called Van Rumors, on which he anonymously posted gossip about students and teachers. After months of speculation over who was behind the widely read web page, he proudly revealed himself as its author, even though its content had devastated some of his classmates. “He loved to shock people and be provocative,” said friend Whitney Faber. “He craved attention.”

Outside school, Jason’s life centered on First Baptist, where he passed the time shooting pool and playing Ping-Pong in the recreation hall. He spent his summers on missions with the church’s youth ministry, building houses in impoverished areas of Alabama and Georgia. And it was at First Baptist where he met his best friend, Daniel McAllister, whose mother ran the nursery. An introverted, gangly kid with severe dyslexia, Daniel was two years older than Jason and painfully shy. Outwardly, the two boys—who had met when Jason was in the third grade and Daniel was in the fifth grade—could not have been any more mismatched. Daniel, who was home­schooled, in part because he lagged academically, was hardly bookish; his dream was to someday be a motorcycle mechanic. His father made a meager living working intermittently as a carpenter and struggled to make ends meet for Daniel and his two older sisters, Christy and Jessica. But the two boys enjoyed each other’s company and spent hours together every weekend, four-wheeling and roaming around the Steels’ property. “Jason was on a different level than most children his age, and that caused problems for him at times, because other kids didn’t understand him,” Brenda said. “I think that’s why he and Daniel were so close, even though they were opposites. Daniel accepted him.”

When the boys got into their first bit of mischief it was, naturally, at First Baptist. The church was usually left unlocked, and late one night, when Jason and Daniel were teenagers, they let themselves in. They would do so dozens of times in the years that followed. Rumor had it that First Baptist was haunted, and so they went ghost hunting, walking around the darkened sanctuary or sitting perfectly still in its pews, listening for the telltale sounds of spirits. Sometimes they closed all the doors inside First Baptist and waited for hours to see if any of them moved. Their pastor caught them once, but he chose not to discipline them, chalking the episode up to youthful hijinks.

IN 2007, THE YEAR BEFORE he graduated from high school, Jason began to experience a crisis of faith. “Anytime we got into a fight, he would tell me that the reason things weren’t going so well was that he was not okay with God,” his girlfriend at the time would later tell investigators. “He said he believed in God, but he had so many questions that nobody could explain.” Jason continued attending church and having lengthy discussions with his grandmother about Scripture, but in conversations with friends that stretched on for hours, he aired his doubts: If God really did exist, why didn’t he perform miracles more often? Why didn’t he communicate with his believers verbally? Why had he allowed Satan to exist and corrupt mankind?

Michael Fumento did a lot of great work on the original church burning hoax, but this story reminds of a few reasons churches are so often targeted: the arsonists are lashing out at God and churches--many of them old--have bad security and fire safety and burn good.

Posted by at May 11, 2011 2:52 PM

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