McCullough church fire probe still active

Although leaders of McCullough First Baptist Church and the first firefighter on the scene believe that faulty wiring led to the December 16 fire that reduced the church to charred brick walls and heat-warped roofing, the federal investigation into the fire remains active.

First Baptist Church, which has a mostly black congregation of “about 50,” was the McCullough community’s oldest house of worship.

McCullough VFD Chief Eddie Kirby said on the day of the destructive blaze that all the church’s doors were locked when firefighters arrived, leading him to believe that the fire’s origin “must have been in the wiring.” FBC Deacon James McNeil said insurance investigators have indicated the same to church officials.

But Michael P. Knight, special agent and public information officer for the Nashville Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, indicated last Friday that field agents were still working to eliminate any possibility of arson before closing the books on the fire.

Knight said the bureau, which is charged with investigating all church fires as possible hate crimes, is also seeking input from the public who might know anything about the circumstances surrounding the fire.

“A final determination has yet to be made as the investigators are continuing to follow up on leads,” he said. “The case is ongoing, and if the public has any additional information, please contact local law enforcement or provide the information through the ATF phone app Reportit.”

The agency brought in several pieces of heavy equipment to help sort and sift through the rubble in order that investigators could better analyze it for traces of evidence.

Reportit is a free app that is compatible with almost any mobile device. Once the app has been downloaded, just type in “ATF-Anonymous Tip Line” and enter your data, and the information will be sent confidentially to the closest ATF field office. For Apple products, the app may be downloaded from the App Store; for Android devices, it may be downloaded from Google Play.

The Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 granted federal prosecutors greater power in pursuing those who “burn, desecrate, or otherwise damage religious property.” It was enacted in response to a rash of arsons that destroyed more than 66 of the nation’s historically black churches over an 18-month period.

The Act provides that the crime of “intentionally deface(ing) or destroy(ing) any religious real property because of race, color, or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that religious property” is subject to federal authority. The legislation also increased maximum prison sentences for committing such crimes from 10 to 20 years.