Fire Marshal Leonard Compton knew one thing as soon as he entered the charred remains of the Rosebud Baptist Church on a warm Sunday morning in July -- this fire was no accident.
Someone had piled the wooden pews of the rural, all-black church on top of each other, overturned the organ and piano, ripped out the public address system, then poured kerosene over everything and set it on fire.
The only bright spot was that whoever had done it had left a truckload of clues including fingerprints, blood samples and a muddy shoe print -- "the finest set of prints you'd seen in your life and blood spots the size of silver dollars," recalls Compton, who says he put the evidence in the trunk of a Pittsylvania County deputy sheriff's car.
Then, he says, the evidence disappeared, and with it, vitually all hope of convicting whoever put a match to Rosebud Baptist.
No arrests have been made, although the editor of the feisty local newspaper, The Gretna Gazette, says the identity of some of those involved is common knowledge here. Although he concedes he does not have enough proof to name them publicly, the journalist, Rodney Smith, says the culprits were white youths in their middle teens from some of the area's most prominent families.
"They [the sheriff's department] told us they were looking into it, but I don't think they did the job at all," says church deacon William I Bennett. d"Those boys shouldn't have been too hard to find."
More than four years later, Fire Marshal Compton, who says he told his story to county and state police officers to no avail, has gone public with his accusations. They not only have forced reluctant county law enforcement officials to reopen the Rosebud arson case; they also have raised new questions about the way the law is enforced in this rolling, agricultural southside Virginia county just above the North Carolina line.
"If it had been a white church and blacks were suspected of burning it, there would have been arrests within a few days," says the Gazette's Smith. "They might not have gotten the right people, but they would have arrested somebody."
Most of the questions center around the conduct of the county's tall, affable sheriff, Taylor E. McGregor, 53. Besides being a 21-year-old veteran of the sheriff's office, McGregor also is one of the county's best-connected politicians. His sister is married to Rep. W.c. [Dan] Daniel,this district's congressman, while his wife works as a secretary to the county prosecutor.
McGregor's office first came under fire four years ago during a state and federal investigation that led to the 1977 conviction of former county prosecutor Joseph M. Whitehead on federal conspiracy and racketeering charges.
A special grand jury concluded that Sheriff McGregor had allowed his department "to be completely dominated" by Whitehead even after he left the prosecutor's office. It said Whitehead, who had a private law practice on the side, had threatened a sheriff's deputy who was to testify against a Whitehead client in a felony case and that "McGregor knew of these threats and did absolutely nothing about them."
Despite those accusations and others, McGregor never was indicted. He also escaped indictment after an 18-month state police investigation that followed the grand jury report. The investigation reportedly looked into allegations that sheriff's deputies were ordered to ignore traffic violations by prominent county citizens, were directed to pad mileage reports on county cars and received low-interest "sweetheart" loans from Whitehead. McGregor has denied each allegation.
A state police investigator also questioned Compton, who says he told the investigator about the missing Rosebud fire evidence. The state police, citing department policy, refuse to discuss their probe.
Compton says he does not know what hapened to the evidence from the fire after he put it in the trunk of Deputy Sheriff Haile Gatewood's car. He claims Gatewood told him he would submit the evidence to the state division of consolidated laboratories in Richmond the next day for analysis.
Compton says he learned the evidence was missing two weeks later when a state arson investigator, impatient with waiting for the analysis results, called the lab and learned it had never received the material.
Gatewood has denied that he or Compton put any evidence in his car, although another former deputy backs up Compton's story. Before that, Gatewood refers all questions to his boss, Sheriff McGregor. Despite his reputation for amiability, McGregor, who is at home recovering from a bout of high-blood pressure, hung up the phone last week when a reporter called to discuss the fire.
Meanwhile, the county's new prosecutor, Glenn Berger, says he has reopened the four-year-old fire investigation and started a new probe to determine whether members of the sheriff's department were involved in a cover-up conspiracy.
Rosebud Baptist was rebuilt with $25,000 that church officers say was collected from insurance. They deny rumors that the families of the youths who destroyed the church forked over $5,000 each to pay for the damage.
Despite assurances by the sheriff's department that the fire was thoroughly investigated, members of the congregation say they are not happy with the way the probe was conducted.
Nor is Fire Marshal Compton, who says no law enforcement official ever bothered to try to find the missing evidence four years ago when the trail still was hot.
"The whole works knew about it," says Compton. "But nothing every happened."