Churches, Houses Torched in Tennessee Town

A member of the Roberts Street Church of Christ in Sparta, Tenn., looks at the damage from an arson fire Friday morning.
A member of the Roberts Street Church of Christ in Sparta, Tenn., looks at the damage from an arson fire Friday morning. (By Ty Kernea -- Herald-citizen Via Associated Press)
By Gary Tanner
Associated Press
Saturday, July 9, 2005

SPARTA, Tenn., July 8 -- Seven fires were deliberately set Friday in a neighborhood in this small Tennessee town, inflicting heavy damage on two black churches and burning five vacant houses, authorities said.

Detective Allen Selby of the Sparta police said there was no evidence the arsons were part of a racist hate crime but authorities were not ruling out anything.

No injuries were reported in the fires, which were set just before 5 a.m. in the town, 75 miles southeast of Nashville.

The churches that burned were on the same street, and as firefighters arrived to fight one fire, Selby said, "they looked down the street and the other church was fully involved."

The FBI, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the White County Sheriff's Department are investigating. The FBI was called in because federal law covers church arson. Authorities have interviewed 17 people and two of those interviews were conducted at the White County Jail, but Selby said there are no suspects yet.

Roberts Street Church of Christ was destroyed, and the Kynette United Methodist Church was heavily damaged. Both served black congregations, Mayor Tom Pedigo said.

About 5 percent of Sparta's 5,000 residents are black, according to census figures.

"I think as far as the total community is concerned, I don't see any racial implications to it," Pedigo said. "We're searching all avenues we can. We want to find the answer to this as soon as possible, and I think we can."

Only the front wall remained standing at the Church of Christ, a cinder-block building with white vinyl siding.

Church member Tommy Leftwich lives nearby and saw the building in flames.

"It was a hurtful feeling, an empty feeling in my stomach. I've spent many a year in there," Leftwich said.

Thirty to 40 people are members at Kynette UMC, which was established in the 1880s and rebuilt as a brick structure in 1960. On Friday, the exterior was stained by smoke and the roof was sagging where the fire burned through.

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