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.
"The interior is just about ruined, the musical instruments are ruined, and the basement is ruined," said church member Tommy Glenn.
The two church members said they had no reason to think the arsons were racially motivated.
"I hope not," Leftwich said. "Everyone around here seems to get along real well."
The five houses were less damaged, with only one receiving what authorities described as moderate damage.
The mayor held a community meeting in a resident's yard and took questions from about two dozen people from the neighborhood.
"We're doing everything in our power to find out what's going on and bring this to a close," Pedigo said. "It's a terrible thing that happened in Sparta."
Selby assured residents that police would be stationed in the neighborhood until the investigation is complete.
At the end of the meeting, the residents held hands for a prayer by the Rev. Ever Mudambanuki of Kynette UMC.
"This is the devil's work. We have forgiven them, but we want them to be caught," she said.