03/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
On March 8, the campus newspaper at Birmingham-Southern College proclaimed two promising theater students, Benjamin Moseley and Russell DeBusk Jr., to be "on the road to stardom." Now, though, the friends are more likely en route to infamy. The BSC sophomores and another student, University of Alabama at Birmingham junior Matthew Cloyd, are, as of press time, in jail, charged with setting fire to Baptist churches in rural Alabama last month. The motive? Thrill-seeking, say investigators. "This is not a hate crime," said FBI Special Agent Carmen Adams. "They were excited by the fact there were fires." Authorities say the students torched five churches on Feb. 3, then four days later set fire to four more to throw agents off their trail.
At first glance the friends seem unlikely suspects. Cloyd, 20, the son of a doctor, was a premed student who transferred last year from BSC. Moseley, 19, was president of his high school student council. Moseley and DeBusk, also 19 and described by one friend as "goofy... almost like a cartoon character," both starred in campus plays. But they had a darker side. On Moseley's facebook.com Web page, Cloyd wrote, "2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil!" Among the interests Cloyd listed on his own facebook.com profile were "running over squirrels with my 4Runner."
Ironically, that vehicle led to their arrest. Authorities matched tracks at six of the sites to tires on Cloyd's SUV. The threesome now face five years for each church they burned. "We're devastated, believe me," says Cloyd's father, Michael, 52. Moseley's dad, Stephen, said, "We're just trying to get through this." DeBusk's attorney told The Birmingham News that his client's "world is turned upside down." Members of the burned churches know the feeling. At Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, the congregation now worships in a large trailer. "God forgives those boys, so we have to," says Lajunta Hood, a member on and off for 30 years. "The devil just got hold of them."