It was one of the most perplexing crimes anyone could recall—ten churches in East Texas torched in six weeks. But even more mysterious was the fact that the arsonists were two local boys, raised as Baptists, who had met in Sunday school.
By Pamela Colloff | The AfricaPaper
Texas – The first church to go up in flames was Little Hope Baptist Church, outside the East Texas town of Canton, on New Year’s Day 2010. The small, red-brick church overlooked a quiet stretch of farmland, accessible only by way of meandering back roads. At around nine o’clock that morning, a parishioner who lived nearby spotted fire venting from the roof of the fellowship hall. Thick, black smoke drifted over Little Hope, across the neighboring pastures, and into the cold winter air. The local fire department raced to the scene, but the hall, which had been built by church members more than half a century earlier, was quickly consumed, its walls left scorched and blackened by the blaze.
Two hours later, flames were seen rising from the roof of Faith Church of Athens, twenty miles away. The vaulted sanctuary and everything inside—pews, a grand piano, Bibles, and a stained-glass cross—were destroyed. As Pastor Leon Wallace walked through the ruins, he could see that someone had ransacked the place; his desk had been riffled through, and $2 had been taken from the Sunday school room. Although the blaze at Little Hope was thought by the Van Zandt County fire marshal to have been sparked by a faulty electrical box, the cause of the fire at Faith Church was determined to be arson. That Sunday, shaken churchgoers crowded into Faith Church’s youth room to pray, wondering who might have been responsible and why.
Then, ten days later, on the night of January 11, smoke was seen pouring out of an open doorway at Grace Community Church, not far from Athens’s main square. Flames quickly engulfed the sanctuary, leaving it completely gutted. As firefighters struggled to put out the blaze, they received news that Lake Athens Baptist Church, six miles away, was also on fire. Pastor John E. Green watched as the sanctuary where he had baptized his great-grandchildren and led the funeral service for his wife of fifty years burned to the ground. “I knew God was going to use this to strengthen and resolve us,” Green said. “But we were fearful too. No one knew how many more churches were going to be destroyed.” In the damp clay soil, two sets of shoe prints were found: one that matched a pair of sneakers, the other, a pair of work boots.
The Texas Rangers were called in, as were federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but over the following week, three more churches were torched, two in Tyler and one in nearby Lindale. Unlike the previous targets, these churches were located in well-traveled areas. First Church of Christ, Scientist, for example, stood at the heart of Tyler’s historic Azalea District, on Broadway, the main thoroughfare in town. Some of the churches had been elaborately staged before being set alight. Bibles, hymnals, and pew cushions were used as kindling and were stacked around pulpits, under pianos, and inside baptisteries.
In a largely rural region where faith is an integral part of everyday life, the audacity of the arsonists stirred both panic and outrage. “Area Pastors Begin Vigilant Watches, Worried Their Churches Could Be Targeted,” read the front page of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “Area Christians Ready to Stand Ground in ‘Spiritual Battle,’” read another headline. Soon the hunt for the church burners—a probe that would span three counties and involve 75 federal agents, 50 investigators from the Department of Public Safety, and 30 Texas Rangers—had grown into the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history. More than one hundred troopers were called in to patrol the region’s towns and back roads, and at night, volunteers took turns keeping watch outside their churches.
There was no way to predict where or when the perpetrators would attack next; they struck at different times of day, on varying days of the week, and did not single out any particular race or denomination. Though anonymous calls came pouring into the East Texas Church Fires Tip Line and dozens of potential suspects were questioned, each lead turned out to be a dead end. Desperate for clues, undercover agents attended a prayer vigil across the street from the burned-out shell of First Church of Christ, Scientist, scanning the crowd for anyone who looked out of place. “It felt like we were being held hostage,” recalled Smith County district attorney Matt Bingham. “Everyone was holding their breath, wondering, ‘Is this going to happen again tonight? Will it be my church this time?’”
Two weeks passed uneventfully. Then, in the predawn hours of February 4, Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, in Wills Point, an hour’s drive west of Tyler, went up in flames. The church stood directly across the street from the local volunteer fire department. Four nights later, smoke was seen billowing from Dover Baptist Church, in a rural area northwest of Tyler. Not long after firefighters arrived, word came over the police scanner that another church, five miles down the road, Clear Spring Missionary Baptist, was ablaze. Texas Ranger Brent Davis and ATF special agent Larry Smith, the probe’s two lead investigators, raced from one fire to the next. Davis, a former trooper who had earned his Ranger badge two years earlier, and Smith, a veteran fire investigator who had worked the crash scene at the Pentagon after 9/11, looked on helplessly as Clear Spring’s roof buckled and fell, illuminating the night sky. Firefighters, who were still struggling to suppress the blaze at Dover, had not yet hauled their water and equipment to Clear Spring. “We had to stand there and watch it burn,” Smith said.
The two lawmen finally caught a lucky break on Valentine’s Day, when a customer reported some unusual graffiti in the restroom of Atwoods Ranch and Home, a Tyler hardware and farm supply store. Etched into the metal partition of the handicapped stall was an inverted cross crowned with crudely drawn flames; above it, someone had scratched the words “Little Hope was arson.” Davis and Smith were elated: Because the blaze had been thought to be accidental, Little Hope had never been mentioned in news reports of the church fires. Only someone intimately familiar with the crimes would make such a claim.
On the grainy footage recorded by Atwoods’ security cameras the previous day, one man seen entering the restroom was immediately recognizable to investigators: nineteen-year-old Jason Bourque. ATF agents had visited the chubby, curly-haired teenager just two days earlier, following up on a tip from a friend who believed he was involved in the fires. Bourque had been under surveillance ever since, though his graffiti had escaped the attention of the federal agents who were trailing him. A former honor student, Eagle Scout, and state debate champion, Bourque hardly fit the profile of a church burner—he had, in fact, been a devout Baptist for most of his life. But Davis and Smith were certain they had found who they were looking for.
As a kid growing up near the small town of Ben Wheeler, half an hour’s drive west of Tyler, Jason Bourque possessed the certainty of a true believer. He carried a leather-bound King James Bible with him wherever he went, reading it during his lunch break at school and quoting Scripture in class to bolster any argument he tried to make. His other Bible, which he kept at home, was so well-worn by the time he reached high school that he had to reinforce it with duct tape to prevent it from falling apart. “Jason was very passionate about his faith,” said LaRue Allen, his former Boy Scout troop leader. “He argued with anyone who didn’t see the world as he did. He was very big on creationism, for example, so if you believed in evolution, he would fight you tooth and nail to bring you around to his position.” During his five years in the Scouts, Jason served as his troop’s chaplain, leading a prayer before mealtimes and a short Sunday service on weekend campouts. “Not everyone liked how aggressively he pushed his point of view, so some kids got along with him and others didn’t,” said Allen. “He was always a lightning rod.”
Jason was raised by his maternal grandparents—Bob Steel, a retired oil refinery superintendent, and his wife, Brenda—who rescued him from the chaos of his early childhood. They took Jason in at the age of four after his mother, Kim, became heavily addicted to methamphetamine and his father, Bobby, was sent to prison for selling cocaine. The Steels, by contrast, were models of respectability, and they doted on Jason, giving him the run of their 75-acre property, which had two ponds, a creek, and a swimming pool. Though they didn’t regularly attend church, Brenda hoped that a good Christian upbringing would prevent Jason from following the same self-destructive path as his parents, and she began taking him to Sunday school. After a few months of dropping him off at church, a nagging sense of guilt pushed her to stay and listen too. She also started watching charismatic preacher Joyce Meyer on television every day. “It gradually dawned on me that I wasn’t living right,” Brenda said. “Not that I was doing anything terribly wrong but that maybe God had a message for me too.”
Brenda began attending a Bible study, and when Jason was nine, she experienced an ecstatic spiritual awakening. “Joyce Meyer talks about God filling her with ‘liquid love,’ and that’s what happened to me,” Brenda said. “I wanted everyone to feel what I was feeling. I told my daughter, ‘Kim, I’ve never done drugs, but there couldn’t be any drug better than this.’” She and Bob were both baptized, and she immersed herself in Bible studies that sometimes stretched on for the whole day. “Mom couldn’t have a normal conversation,” Kim told me. “Everything led back to God and what she was reading in the Bible that day.” (Kim intermittently lived in a trailer on the Steels’ property, sometimes disappearing for extended periods of time.) But Jason liked the sense of structure their new faith provided. That summer, he returned home from a weeklong vacation Bible camp and proudly announced that he had been saved. Soon afterward he was baptized at First Baptist Church of Ben Wheeler, where the Steels signed on as Sunday school teachers and Jason got involved in the youth ministry. “We became radically committed to God and working in his kingdom,” Brenda said.
At First Baptist, Jason quickly distinguished himself. “He was brilliant—one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said a former pastor of his, who asked that his name be withheld. “He was a serious, scholarly Bible reader at a very early age. I assumed he was headed for Rice or Harvard. He had that kind of intellect.” Jason’s only shortcoming was that “everything was black and white,” recalled the pastor. “Subtleties were hard for him. He didn’t see grays.”
A voracious reader, Jason spent hours each night thumbing through books from the library. He was particularly interested in philosophy and was drawn to the writings of political thinker John Rawls, who believed in the importance of social justice. “Jason was very inquisitive,” Brenda said. “He knew something about everything.” His curiosity about the world served him well when he joined the debate team at his high school, in the nearby town of Van, where he excelled at LD—short for “Lincoln-Douglas”—debating: a one-on-one style of debate in which a particular value or philosophical principle is deliberated. (During one competition his junior year, a judge noted on his ballot: “You are too fabulous for words! Go to law school!”) Jason advanced to the state UIL Lincoln-Douglas tournament when he was a junior, winning third place. His senior year, he placed first.
Jason’s precociousness did not always endear him to his peers at Van High School, who remember him as an emotionally immature know-it-all with few social graces. “Jason wasn’t an easy person to get along with,” said Sarah Hunt-Nichols, a former member of the debate team. “He would argue about anything—‘No, the sky isn’t blue’—just to argue.” The Steels, who had done well in the stock market, gave him a silver Mustang convertible when he was seventeen, a detail that cast him as a rich kid in the minds of his classmates, even though the car was six years old. Jason did little to discourage the impression; he cultivated a preppy image, wearing khakis and polo shirts, and he always had spending money, even though he never held a job. He seemed to enjoy getting under people’s skin. His junior year, he started a MySpace page called Van Rumors, on which he anonymously posted gossip about students and teachers. After months of speculation over who was behind the widely read web page, he proudly revealed himself as its author, even though its content had devastated some of his classmates. “He loved to shock people and be provocative,” said friend Whitney Faber. “He craved attention.”
Outside school, Jason’s life centered on First Baptist, where he passed the time shooting pool and playing Ping-Pong in the recreation hall. He spent his summers on missions with the church’s youth ministry, building houses in impoverished areas of Alabama and Georgia. And it was at First Baptist where he met his best friend, Daniel McAllister, whose mother ran the nursery. An introverted, gangly kid with severe dyslexia, Daniel was two years older than Jason and painfully shy. Outwardly, the two boys—who had met when Jason was in the third grade and Daniel was in the fifth grade—could not have been any more mismatched. Daniel, who was homeschooled, in part because he lagged academically, was hardly bookish; his dream was to someday be a motorcycle mechanic. His father made a meager living working intermittently as a carpenter and struggled to make ends meet for Daniel and his two older sisters, Christy and Jessica. But the two boys enjoyed each other’s company and spent hours together every weekend, four-wheeling and roaming around the Steels’ property. “Jason was on a different level than most children his age, and that caused problems for him at times, because other kids didn’t understand him,” Brenda said. “I think that’s why he and Daniel were so close, even though they were opposites. Daniel accepted him.”
When the boys got into their first bit of mischief it was, naturally, at First Baptist. The church was usually left unlocked, and late one night, when Jason and Daniel were teenagers, they let themselves in. They would do so dozens of times in the years that followed. Rumor had it that First Baptist was haunted, and so they went ghost hunting, walking around the darkened sanctuary or sitting perfectly still in its pews, listening for the telltale sounds of spirits. Sometimes they closed all the doors inside First Baptist and waited for hours to see if any of them moved. Their pastor caught them once, but he chose not to discipline them, chalking the episode up to youthful hijinks.
In 2007, the year before he graduated from high school, Jason began to experience a crisis of faith. “Anytime we got into a fight, he would tell me that the reason things weren’t going so well was that he was not okay with God,” his girlfriend at the time would later tell investigators. “He said he believed in God, but he had so many questions that nobody could explain.” Jason continued attending church and having lengthy discussions with his grandmother about Scripture, but in conversations with friends that stretched on for hours, he aired his doubts: If God really did exist, why didn’t he perform miracles more often? Why didn’t he communicate with his believers verbally? Why had he allowed Satan to exist and corrupt mankind? “Jason told me that one time he said to himself, ‘I’m going to open the Bible and put my finger down randomly, and if God is real, he will give me the answer I need,’” said Dylan Cavanaugh, a member of the debate team. “He opened the Bible and put his finger down on a phrase that said something like ‘Only a fool would not believe in God.’ And that helped him for a little while.”
Not long after graduation, Jason’s girlfriend announced that she was breaking off their nine-month-long relationship. Jason fell into a deep depression. “His grandparents would say, ‘Let’s pray about it,’ but that wasn’t a satisfying answer to him anymore,” Cavanaugh explained. “He had done a lot of praying, and that hadn’t changed anything.” Jason began incessantly calling his ex-girlfriend’s house, telling her mother that he and her daughter would be together “no matter what it takes.” The calls continued after the girl’s father died that summer and did not abate even on the day of his funeral. To his friends, Jason talked obsessively about the girl and made clear that their breakup had only further shaken his faith. He had done everything God had asked of him, he wondered, so why was he being punished? Morose and moody, he often slept away the day and spent his evenings hanging out with Daniel, smoking marijuana and ruminating about the mysteries of the universe. “He quit caring about church, he quit praying. He didn’t want anything to do with religion,” Daniel would later tell investigators. “He started telling everyone he was agnostic. He knew there was a God out there but wanted him to prove himself to make him believe.”
Had Jason’s summer ended with a fresh start at the University of Texas at Austin, which he longed to attend, things might have turned out differently. But despite taking honors classes, his academic performance had been too inconsistent overall to earn him admission. He enrolled at UT Tyler, just twenty miles south of Lindale, where he and his grandparents had moved when he was in high school. That fall, his depression only deepened; he cried easily, breaking down in tears during class, and was unable to focus on his studies. After campus police wrote him up twice for being in possession of alcohol, he was suspended for a year at the start of his second semester. “I asked him to go see our pastor, and Jason talked to him once, but it didn’t do much good,” Brenda remembered. A drug counselor she took him to referred Jason to a psychiatrist, but the Prozac he was prescribed did not relieve his sense of hopelessness. A former classmate was shocked to run into him in Van. The once clean-cut debate champion whose future had seemed bright less than a year earlier had grown his hair out and was idling around a park where local teenagers went to get high. “He was completely blazed,” she remembered.
Daniel too was at a crossroads, having experienced his own crisis of faith in 2007, at the age of nineteen, when his mother died after a stroke. Wanda McAllister had been the paradigm of Christian beneficence; relentlessly cheerful and generous, she had run a donated clothing exchange for the poor, despite the fact that her own family lived at the margins. Her death had left Daniel struggling to grasp the logic of what his pastors had always called “God’s plan.” He and his mother had been extremely close; even as a teenager, he had preferred to be by her side in the church nursery than to participate in the youth ministry with his peers. After her death, he continued to accompany his family to First Baptist on Sundays, but he refused to take part in worship services, waiting outside in silent protest. His anguish only worsened in the spring of 2009—shortly after Jason was kicked out of college—when his grieving father, David, tried to hang himself. Daniel and his sister Christy had both been home when their father managed to tie the end of a rope to a sturdy tree in the yard, climb a ladder, slip a noose around his neck, and kick the ladder out from under himself. Daniel had come to the rescue, holding his gasping father in the air while Christy ran for a butcher knife to cut him down.
Alienated and adrift, Daniel and Jason spent much of their time together that year getting high. They smoked marijuana and salvia, a hallucinogen, and popped prescription painkillers like OxyContin and methadone. With Jason behind the wheel, they made late-night trips to Walmart to stock up on orange-flavored Delsym cough syrup, which they chugged by the bottle, and decongestant pills like Mucinex DM. (Both contain dextromethorphan, which, in high doses, causes hallucinations as well as euphoria.) Daniel might take as many as twenty Mucinex in a single day, sometimes slipping into unconsciousness. He shaved his hair into a mohawk and wore the same black T-shirt, emblazoned with the image of the grim reaper, for weeks at a time. “I didn’t know how far he had gotten into drugs, but I was pretty sure he was using marijuana,” said Christy, a DPS dispatcher. “I told him, ‘I work in law enforcement. You can’t do these things and live in the same house as me. You’re not going to lose my job for me.’” Christy was already working long hours to support herself and her daughter, whom she was raising on her own. “I warned him that the path he was on wasn’t going to lead anywhere good,” she said. “And he said, ‘Whatever, sister. I’m fine. Stop worrying.’ He thought he was ten feet tall and bulletproof.”
By the fall, he and Jason had begun burglarizing cars. Roaming upscale residential neighborhoods after dark, they ransacked unlocked vehicles, looking for credit cards, cash, and prescription drugs. Daniel, who had no car and was sleeping on friends’ couches, needed the money. The previous year, the cabinet shop where he had worked as a carpenter’s assistant shut down, and he had been out of work ever since. With no more than a ninth-grade education and difficulty reading and writing, his job prospects were slim. Jason was also unemployed, but the Steels had continued to cover his expenses even though he had trouble holding on to a job. (He had managed to get hired for two positions, first as a door-to-door salesman peddling an all-purpose cleaning solvent and then as a sales clerk at a housewares store, both of which were short-lived.) Despite his grandparents’ generosity, his behavior around them grew increasingly erratic. “He became very hostile and belligerent toward us, and he would lash out for no reason,” said Brenda. His friends also noticed a dramatic shift. “Jason deteriorated pretty quickly,” said Cavanaugh. “I think he was looking for a normative structure, for a compass to follow, and eventually he decided that it wasn’t religion. And upon reaching that conclusion, he found no reason to keep following the rules of society.”
Daniel traveled that Christmas to the town of Schertz, outside San Antonio, to see a girl he had met at a party whom, he told friends, he planned to marry. When he returned home on a Greyhound bus on January 4, Little Hope and Faith Church had been torched. The following week, Jason took Daniel aside at a friend’s house and divulged that he had set fire to both of the churches after breaking in to see what he could steal. Daniel later told investigators that Jason had urged him to come out with him that night: “He was like, ‘Would you like to ride along with me?’ and he pulled out a bag of weed. And I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll go.’ I was bored and didn’t have nothing else to do.”
The catastrophic damage caused by fire typically leaves little forensic evidence behind, making arson cases notoriously difficult to solve. (Almost three years after the Governor’s Mansion was nearly destroyed with a Molotov cocktail, no arrests have been made.) ATF agents working on the church fires case had only one advantage: There were ten different crime scenes to be plumbed for clues. By meticulously sifting through the remains of each conflagration, they hit upon a few critical pieces of physical evidence. Culled from the ruins were two distinct sets of shoe prints, a lone fingerprint on a piece of glass, and two microscopic samples of genetic material: skin cells that had been left on both a brick and a rock, each of which had been used to smash in a church window. But who, exactly, this evidence pointed to remained a mystery. Hoping to generate more leads from the public, investigators announced early on that a reward, which grew to $25,000, would be given to anyone who provided information leading to the arrests and convictions of the arsonists. “We got a lot of calls along the lines of ‘I haven’t seen so-and-so in years, but he liked to play with matches when he was a kid,” recalled Davis. “We knew somebody out there knew something, and it was just a matter of time before they came forward.”
On the morning of February 11, a seventeen-year-old in Athens named Brianna Wilbanks called the church fires tip line. Two ATF agents visited Brianna that day at her grandmother’s house, where she explained that earlier that week her husband, twenty-year-old Richard Wilbanks, had let slip that Daniel McAllister, a friend who had been spending the night at their house, and another friend, Jason Bourque, had bragged to him late one night that they were setting churches on fire. When Richard noticed Brianna’s concern, he had quickly assured her that he was joking and that she need not worry or think about the matter again. Brianna went on to tell the agents that Daniel carried a .22-caliber pistol that he had stolen from a wild animal rescue vehicle and that he had unexpectedly given her a Fender Starcaster guitar a few days earlier. In a follow-up interview the next day at the Athens police department, she added that Daniel had recently admitted to her that he was glad that churches were being burned down. “He said that even though the people who go to those churches are rich, they aren’t any better than he is,” Brianna explained.
After meeting with Brianna, the two ATF agents paid Jason a visit. (Daniel had returned to Schertz to see his girlfriend, and they were unsure of his whereabouts.) Special agent Van Tuley, who hailed from the ATF’s field office in Charlotte, North Carolina, had an easy, disarming manner, and when he and special agent Stephen Brenneman pulled up to the Steels’ residence, he took the lead. Tuley’s nonchalant demeanor—he told Brenda that law enforcement was looking at every blue car in the area because someone had reported seeing one leave the scene of a church fire—gave Brenda no cause for alarm. “He said they were working their way down a long list, and our car was one of many,” said Brenda. She told the agents that the blue Ford Focus parked in the driveway belonged to her and her husband but that her grandson drove it. (For Jason’s high school graduation gift, the Steels had traded in the old Mustang for a newer car.) Tuley asked if they could speak to her grandson to obtain permission to search the car, and Brenda went to get him.
While Brenda was inside, Tuley and Brenneman glanced into the garage, which had been left open, and spotted a pair of muddy Skechers sneakers. The agents immediately recognized them; the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia, had determined that the shoe prints found at several of the crime scenes were consistent with the treads on Skechers, and every agent working the case had been given photos of that make of shoe. When Jason appeared, they noted that he was wearing Skechers too. He seemed ill at ease as he greeted the agents. After finding nothing of interest in the car, Tuley began making small talk with the teenager, who mentioned that he had started attending Tyler Junior College.
“Have you heard anything about the fires from other students at school?” Tuley asked him.
“No, I haven’t really heard anything,” Jason said with a shrug.
“Well, why do you think someone would want to burn down churches?” Tuley pressed him.
“I don’t think it’s to cover up thefts,” Jason replied, briefly meeting Tuley’s gaze. “I think it’s a hate crime.”
That night, East Texas was hit by a crippling snowstorm. With iced-over roads and wrecks that needed to be cleared, the dispatch station at the Tyler DPS office, where Christy McAllister was on duty, was in high gear. Christy had clocked dozens of hours of overtime working on the church fires case, helping coordinate logistics for the hundreds of law enforcement agents who were in town. She took enormous pride in her job, which had lifted her out of a hardscrabble existence and was the fulfillment of a long-held dream; as a seventh grader, she had declared that she was going to be a Texas Ranger when she grew up. “This is my second family,” Christy later told me at the DPS office. “When I go to work, I always go in thinking, ‘I just want my guys to go back home the same way they came in.’”
At around eight o’clock that evening, Davis called from the command post at the National Guard Armory in Athens, where the church fires investigation was headquartered. He sounded upbeat, explaining that he was working a promising lead, and asked her to pull some criminal histories. “I need you to run two names for me,” he said.
“All right,” said Christy.
“Last name, Bourque: B-O-U-R—” he began.
Christy felt her throat tighten. “Is his first name Jason?” she interrupted.
“Yeah, why?” Davis asked. “Do you know this kid?”
Christy closed her eyes and put her head in her hands. All Davis could hear was silence on the other end of the line.
“Jason is my brother’s best friend,” she said finally, her voice breaking.
The Ranger paused. “What’s your brother’s name?”
Two days later, Jason scratched “Little Hope was arson” onto the metal divider in the Atwoods restroom. “After that, there was no doubt in our minds that we were following the right guy,” Smith said. “Little Hope hadn’t gotten any coverage in the media, and I think he wanted attention for what he had done.” In a group discussion before class one day at Tyler Junior College, Jason announced to other students, “You won’t believe this, but I got stopped by the Lindale police in front of a church because they thought I was the church arsonist!” (Jason was never actually stopped by the Lindale police.) “He laughed, and I laughed because I never imagined he would actually do something like that,” recalled Margo Fritz, a classmate who Jason knew was covering the church fires as a photographer for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I didn’t realize that maybe he wanted to be found out.”
Unbeknownst to Jason, he was already under 24-hour surveillance. At night, as temperatures dipped below freezing, federal agents equipped with night-vision goggles kept watch from the woods surrounding his grandparents’ house. During the day, agents in unmarked cars trailed him to the Dairy Queen and across campus to the Baptist Student Ministry, where he routinely went on Wednesdays for the free lunch. Sometimes, on his way home, he took circuitous routes that led past the blackened frames of the burned churches, and more than once, he slowed down to take a closer look. When he headed into rural areas where a car in his rearview mirror would be too conspicuous, a fixed-wing Cessna followed him overhead. Once, when he spit on the ground while filling up his car with gas, a Texas Ranger—who stayed out of sight until he had driven away—stooped down immediately afterward to swab the pavement for DNA. A cigarette butt he had discarded while walking across campus was retrieved by a watchful DPS investigator. Both items were flown to the ATF Forensic Science Laboratory in Ammendale, Maryland, to undergo DNA testing.
Texas Rangers were dispatched to San Antonio to keep tabs on Daniel. They had learned of his whereabouts from Christy, who had unhappily become their best source of information about the two suspects. After she had been told by Davis that her brother was being investigated, two Ranger lieutenants had taken her aside and questioned her for hours, asking for everything she knew—about her brother, Jason, their friends and associates, any details that might prove helpful. “I flipped out,” Christy told me. “I kept saying, ‘Please, please, it can’t be them.’” When she left the office at one o’clock that morning, bleary-eyed and emotionally drained, no one had to warn her that she could not disclose what she knew to anyone. “It was understood,” she explained. “I told them I just wanted to do my job and that I would assist in the investigation. But I also said, ‘When the time comes, please let me tell my family. I don’t want them to find out by seeing Daniel’s mug shot on TV.’”
Christy provided a detail that helped place her brother at two of the church fires: She confirmed that he wore Red Wings, a work boot whose tread matched shoe prints recovered at two of the crime scenes. Other information she gave investigators partly absolved Daniel. She supplied the dates—later backed up by Greyhound bus receipts—for three trips he had made to San Antonio, which showed that he had been out of town when half the fires had taken place. As Davis and Smith pieced together the events of the preceding six weeks, they realized that it was Jason alone who had initiated the crime spree on New Year’s Day. It was Jason who had single-handedly torched the most visible, high-profile churches: First Church of Christ, Scientist, in the heart of Tyler, and Fellowship of Prairie Creek, on Main Street in Lindale. “It became pretty clear to us that Jason was the leader and Daniel was the follower,” said Davis. “Jason had a controlling, dominating personality. Jason had the car, he had the money, and he had the drugs. Daniel was along for the ride.”
On the night of February 20, Jason was seen spinning his tires and doing doughnuts on a remote country road. The federal agents who trailed him assumed that he had noticed he was being followed, which caused alarm at task force headquarters. (They would learn afterward that a friend of Jason’s had borrowed the car and was behind the wheel.) Later that evening, Davis received a panicked call from Christy, who told him that Jason had shown up on her doorstep. “He’s acting strange and asking me a lot of questions,” Christy whispered into her cell phone from her bedroom while Jason talked outside to her aunt. “He looked straight at me and said, ‘Have y’all heard from Daniel? When was the last time you talked to him?’” Both she and Davis knew from phone records that the two friends had, in fact, been communicating while Daniel was out of town. Christy had called her brother earlier that day and asked him some pointed questions while investigators listened in. Maybe Daniel had become suspicious and called Jason? Shaken, Christy told the Ranger, “I think he’s up to something.”
Although the DNA results had not come back yet, Davis and Smith decided that they could not wait any longer to make an arrest. Then, at one o’clock in the morning, as they were hurriedly drafting their arrest affidavits, a call came in from the ATF crime lab. The DNA from Jason’s cigarette, they learned, was identical to the DNA on the rock recovered from the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church fire. (Daniel’s fingerprints would later be matched to the print on the piece of glass.) A state district judge was roused from his sleep to sign the arrest warrants, and shortly before four a.m., an ATF special response team stormed the double-wide trailer in Grand Saline where Jason had been staying with his new girlfriend and her family. Three hundred miles away in Schertz, Daniel was arrested at the same time at his girlfriend’s house. Christy, who awoke to find a text message about the night’s developments from Davis, broke the news to her father and sister just after dawn.
When Davis and Smith pulled up to the mobile home in Grand Saline, they found Jason sitting outside in his pajamas, his hands shackled, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. As they rode to Tyler in Davis’s unmarked car, Jason stared out the window in silence. The investigators had hoped he might talk—“We figured he’d try to outsmart us,” said Davis—but after he was read his Miranda rights, he refused to answer any questions and promptly asked for a lawyer. At his arraignment the next day, bail was set at $10 million.
When Daniel arrived in Tyler on the morning of his arrest, he was escorted to a plain, fluorescent-lit interrogation room inside the local ATF office, where Davis and Smith were waiting for him. The 21-year-old—who looked gaunt in a black T-shirt and pajama bottoms—was cordial, and he agreed to waive his right to remain silent. “I don’t have anything against, like, churches or people in them,” he told the officers, leaning forward in his chair. “It’s just the whole idea of religion. They try to control you twenty-four-seven, and it’s never appealed to me. I quit going to church after my mom died, because I got tired of watching her pray every day and then watching her die for a week. I was like, ‘F— that.’”
He had been a witness to many of the fires, Daniel said, but had not taken part in setting them. His motivation for breaking into churches with Jason was to find things he could pawn, like the guitars and video camera he had made off with. “I never had a hand in actually lighting the fires,” Daniel said. “I was running around trying to see if there was anything to take. I don’t like religion, but I don’t dislike it enough to burn [churches] down.” The churches that lacked security systems, he told the investigators, were the ones they had targeted. (He later explained that First Baptist of Ben Wheeler was spared because it was the last place where he had happy memories of his mother.) In the wide-ranging interview, Daniel readily answered questions and placed himself at the scenes of the crimes; his meticulously detailed accounts of each break-in—down to the particular kinds of junk food he had scavenged from each church’s pantry—were consistent with the evidence. Still, Davis and Smith felt that he was holding back. “I would call his statement an admission, not a confession,” said Smith. “At several of the churches, it looked like two people had worked in concert to arrange the combustible materials.”
What had compelled Jason to begin torching churches was no clearer to Daniel than it was to the investigators. “You would honestly have to ask him,” Daniel said in a subsequent interview. “He just wanted to. That’s all he ever really told me.”
Jason did not offer any explanations. For nearly a year, he stared blankly ahead at court appearances and turned down all interview requests from the media. Then, in January, he agreed to talk to me—and over the course of a month, he called dozens of times from the Smith County jail. In our conversations, Jason cast himself as a committed Christian who had only a hazy recollection of the fires he had set. What was to blame, he explained, was an antismoking medication he had been taking called Chantix. (The prescription drug has been known, in some instances, to trigger unpredictable and aggressive behavior.) Chantix had put him in a trancelike state that blurred reality and fantasy, he claimed; only by reading media reports about the blazes did he realize that they had taken place. “I started putting things together about my dreams not being dreams,” he said.
But why—even if he had been in an altered state, I asked—had he consistently targeted houses of worship? “I’m a godly Christian, and I don’t have any animosity toward the church,” he said. “I guess that I’m just a pretty normal guy that got ahold of some bad medication, you know?” He denied ever losing his faith or being angry with God. “I had my problems in high school with religion just like anybody else, but it wasn’t any crisis,” he said. When I pressed him to explain why ATF agents had discovered books with titles like The Atheist’s Way and Demon Possession among his belongings at the trailer in Grand Saline, he was dismissive. Just before his arrest, he said, he had gone to a book sale at the Baptist Student Ministry. “I probably got twenty books,” he said. “I don’t even know what the names were. I just grabbed them.”
Since his arrest, Jason told me, he had experienced a spiritual rebirth so profound that one day last spring he had begun speaking in tongues. “It felt like I was telling God about my problems, even though I didn’t know how to put it all into words,” he said. “I felt like God was very close and present and very noticeable instead of being distant like he can be in other times in our lives.” He had covered the walls of his cell in Scripture, carefully copying resonant passages from Jeremiah and Philippians in pencil. More recently, he added, he had begun reading the Bible aloud each day to a blind inmate. In letters to me, he cited passages from Ecclesiastes that warned of life’s futility apart from God.
But jail records, I knew, painted a more complicated picture. Homemade alcohol and a seizure medication had been discovered during a search of his cell. A letter to his mother that jailers intercepted had included detailed instructions on how to sneak in contraband. And after returning from visitation one day, he had been caught slipping off his handcuffs. When a guard asked him how he had unshackled himself, Jason replied, “Like I always do.”
As was true for Daniel, Jason had no choice but to plead guilty. The evidence amassed by investigators was overwhelming, and taking the case to trial was too risky; the impact of the crimes had been so far-reaching that finding impartial jurors would have been challenging. (Two people connected to the case had been personally affected by the fires; the Henderson County district attorney was married in one of the churches that was burned, and Daniel’s court-appointed lawyer had kept vigil at his own church during the string of arsons.) Both defendants faced the maximum punishment that was allowed under the law: a life sentence for each count of arson. “Jason had to plead out if he ever wanted to see the light of day again,” said Brenda. A plea deal ensured that his sentences—ten life sentences in all—would run concurrently, rather than one after another. Daniel, for his part, received five life sentences. Jason must serve twenty years in prison, Daniel fifteen, before being eligible for parole.
At their final sentencing hearing in February at the Van Zandt County courthouse, in Canton, Jason and Daniel appeared briefly before the presiding judge, shuffling to the bench in their orange jail uniforms and leg irons and stating that they accepted the terms of the plea deal. Christy sat beside her father in her blue DPS windbreaker, wiping away tears. Brenda flashed Jason an encouraging smile as he and Daniel were led out of the courtroom. Across from them, quietly looking on, were several dozen parishioners from churches that had been burned. Most of the churches had been rebuilt in the year since the fires, and their members had long since forgiven the perpetrators, often including them in their prayers. Pastor Green, of Lake Athens Baptist, had visited Jason and Daniel in jail days earlier. “I expressed to them that there was no bitterness or resentment in our hearts,” he told me. “I encouraged them to grow in Christ and make something of their lives. Daniel was very open and said that he had read the Bible during his incarceration and that he had grown in his relationship with God. Jason spoke in a very low voice and said that he felt the punishment was too severe for what he had done.”
After the hearing, Daniel held a press conference at the Van Zandt County sheriff’s office. Flanked by his attorney, he faced the phalanx of TV cameras, candidly answering reporters’ shouted questions—an extraordinary feat for someone who, as a boy, always stared at the ground when he was out in public. He spoke sparingly, but movingly, about his newfound faith. “God can change anybody,” he declared. “If you read your Bible, you will see how Saul was convicted, and he changed and he was Jesus’ best apostle. He was actually killing Christians. God can change anybody if you ask him.” Before he was escorted back to his cell, Daniel paused to reflect on the past year. “I’m sorry that everybody was put through this, and luckily no one was hurt,” he said. “I hope everybody can forgive me and Mr. Bourque.”