Three men who were questioned in arson fires at two black churches were released Tuesday for lack of evidence, while police grappled with two more fires that broke out in other buildings.
The four fires in three days profoundly shocked this town of 23,000.
“We’ve never had anything like this happen in our community - I don’t know how to respond,” Mayor Sue Ann Cross said. “It’s awful and it’s got to stop.”
Fires broke out late Sunday at the New Light House of Prayer and early Monday at the Church of the Living God. Monday night, another fire destroyed a vacant, one-story frame house a few blocks from the New Light church, and on Tuesday night, still another fire broke out in an abandoned, three-story building in downtown Greenville.
It was not immediately known how the latest fire started, but it was extinguished shortly before 10 p.m.
“At this point, no charges will be filed concerning the fires at the local churches,” Police Chief Barry Paris said.
Paris insisted the release of the suspects was not an end to the case. “The investigation is not going away,” he said. “We will go however long it takes to bring this case to closure.”
Before their release, the three had been eliminated as suspects in the fire that did moderate damage to the Church of the Living God, which was reported three hours after the men were taken into custody.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been investigating 30 church fires since January 1995 and has declared five of those cases closed with arrests. The Texas fires bring the total to 32.
The latest blazes have been ruled arson, said Steven Steele of the ATF.
Attorneys general in Southern states plan to form a multistate task force to investigate the fires, South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon said Tuesday.
He said the group’s first action will be to call a summit meeting, probably in Virginia, with religious leaders and law enforcement officials.