The National Church Arson Task Force announced a major plea agreement yesterday in its three-year investigation into hundreds of church bombings and fires across the country.
Angela Wood, 24, of Athens, Ga., pleaded guilty to arson and conspiracy to burn seven churches in southern Indiana. In exchange for her testimony against her former boyfriend, Jay Scott Ballinger, 37, of Yorktown, Ind., prosecutors agreed not to charge Wood for her role in burning churches in 19 other states, according to the plea agreement entered in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis.
Ballinger has been indicted on federal charges with burning at least 29 churches, including five arsons committed with Wood in Indiana. His trial is scheduled for February. He also has been indicted in California, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina in connection with 11 other fires.
"Church fires have victimized congregations and assaulted communities," said James E. Johnson, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for enforcement. "We are pleased with today's guilty plea, which stems from our ongoing efforts against church arsons. We will remain vigilant and will continue to pursue these cases with vigor."
When news of widespread church arsons surfaced several years ago, racial motives were ascribed to the perpetrators; over time, a wider range of motives emerged. Wood and Ballinger, prosecutors said in court filings, were satanists whose acts were motivated by their beliefs about "a new world order."
The task force, created by President Clinton and led by the Justice and Treasury departments, has investigated 834 arsons, bombings and attempted bombings of churches since 1995. Federal, state and local officials have arrested 372 suspects in connection with 300 of the 834 incidents.
Wood faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of 105 years in prison and $1.75 million in fines.
CAPTION: Angela Wood of Georgia has agreed to testify against Jay Scott Ballinger, accused of setting 29 church fires.