OPELOUSAS, La. (AP) — Authorities have arrested a person in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, a federal prosecutor said.
The suspect was in state custody, U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph announced late Wednesday in a news release labeling the fires “despicable acts.”
Details, including the suspect’s identity and race, were not immediately clear. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was among authorities planning to attend a Thursday morning news conference in south Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. There, more information was expected on a case that had rattled many in and around Opelousas, a city of about 16,000.
The fires happened within 10 days at similar sites — rural, African American churches fronting small cemeteries. Each was gutted by flames that left only partial shells of brick walls standing.
“It’s like the ’60s again,” said Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — the site of the last fire.
But Hines and others connected to the churches were careful not to automatically label the fires as racist acts.
“I don’t know why this happened, and we don’t need to jump to conclusions,” said Hines, a member of the church for more than 40 years. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.”
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old, with mostly African American congregations.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.
Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, who declared all three fires suspicious, said “If you’re going to turn to a house of God, turn to it for resurrection.”
The investigation was joined by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and many people from state agencies in Louisiana. ATF investigators were still probing the site of the last fire Wednesday, a week after it happened.
“We’re sort of overwhelmed,” Harry Richard (REE’-shard), pastor of Greater Union said Wednesday. He, too, urged caution in assigning a motive.
“We’re not going to speculate. It’s still under investigation,” Richard said.