12/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
THE WEDNESDAY NIGHT SERVICE AT the First Assembly of God Church in Gainesville, Fla., is long over, but Pastor Arnold Lastinger, 52, is still in his office, talking quietly with two parishioners—one of whom is armed with a pistol and is settling in for a night on guard, protecting their 10-year-old church against an arsonist who has been torching Gainesville's houses of worship. Suddenly a sharp, loud boom shakes the walls of the darkened building. There is a moment of tension in the room, followed quickly by the eerie wail of fast-approaching sirens. Four fire trucks screech to a halt in front of the church, and several firemen pile out. It turns out a nearby electrical transformer has blown up. One of the parishioners, Michael Lewis, 40, shakes hands with each of the firemen. "We're praying for you," he says. "We know the pressure you guys are under."
All too often in the past few weeks, firefighters in this university town, where last year five students were murdered, have found themselves defending their churches. Since Oct. 22, when the United Church of Christ and the First Church of Christ Scientist were set ablaze in the same night, Gainesville churches have been targeted four more times. In seemingly related incidents earlier this year, 13 central Florida churches, including two in Gainesville, were set afire over a 41-day period. Now more than 80 federal arson investigators and state fire marshals are headquartered in the town while they pursue the biggest arson investigation in the country.
"It's a very tense time," says Paul Clendenin, 39, walking back to his church after the fire trucks had left. "Every church is a target." Just two days earlier, the Westwood Hills Church of God, less than a mile away, was reduced to ashes. A day later the St. Augustine Catholic Church, about two miles away, was damaged. The police cannot be everywhere, so the churches themselves are now taking protective measures: On the night of the scare at the First Assembly of God Church, Clendenin, a former highway patrolman, prowls the church's darkened grounds with flashlight and pistol. "I don't stay in the building," he says, "because if a fire started, the last place I would want to be is inside." Just around the corner at Grace Presbyterian, Jeff Tudeen, 38, a news editor at the local paper, and other parishioners are braving 40° F weather to spend the night in lawn chairs in front of their stone-faced modern church.
The Church Arson Task Force investigators, working 18-hour days and tracking over 700 leads, believe that at least 30 of the 50 church fires that have happened since April 1990 are related. One of many suspects is Patrick Lee Frank, a homeless schizophrenic, who was arrested Nov. 13 for trespassing and loitering and is also a suspect in a series of church fires in Tennessee. Officials will divulge little of what they have learned—including how the fires are set or how many suspects they have—for fear of compromising their case or even encouraging copycat crimes. What is certain is that the fires have affected churches of nearly every denomination, except synagogues and mosques. "Christianity is definitely the target here," says Richard Hollinger, a criminologist at the University of Florida. "It's somebody holding a grudge."
In Ocala, 30 miles from Gainesville, Pastor Ed Johnson, 48, surveys the rubble of what was once the landmark First Baptist Church, burned to the ground on Oct. 24. Built in 1926, the striking redbrick edifice and its towering white columns were totally destroyed, leaving only a steel elevator shaft rising like a sentinel above the ruins. But Johnson says the catastrophe has only strengthened his 1,000-member congregation. "We've gained so much in spite of the tragedy," he says. "The fire didn't destroy the church; it just destroyed the building. The church is in the hearts of the people."
CINDY DAMPIER in Gainesville