Authorities say a suspect was arrested Tuesday in a series of fires deliberately lit in Jackson, Mississippi, which damaged two historically black churches — including one that was completely destroyed.
Deputies from the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office say the arson suspect, Delvin McLaurin, was arrested after seven fires started early Tuesday morning in the area of Jackson State University, a historically black public university.
A Jackson Police Department spokesman said he is being charged with malicious mischief. He is being questioned by the FBI and may face additional charges.
The locations of the seven fires were:
- Greater Bethlehem Temple Church at 1505 Robinson Road
- Epiphany Lutheran Church at 1230 Isaiah Montgomery Street
- Baseball field on the Jackson State University campus
- Gas station on Terry Road
- Central Street and Dalton
- 1101 Pascagoula Street
- Terry Road and Cherry Street
Officials began receiving calls about several fires that started around 2:45 a.m. Officials said six of the seven fires were extinguished by 6 a.m. fire was extinguished.
Lloyd Caston, 73, an elder at Epiphany, was awakened around 4 a.m. by a phone call from a relative who lives near the church. Alarmed by the fire, he left his home and arrived at the church around 4:30 a.m. to “completely set the building on fire”.
“I was hurt,” Caston said, remembering seeing the church burning.
Firefighters were on site to extinguish the fire when Caston arrived. He stayed for about an hour and left before the fire was extinguished. “There was nothing for it but to sit and watch,” Caston said. “That was it.”
“It destroyed the church and everything in it,” Caston said. The church is 85 years old and the renovation of the interior of the building was just completed in March.
The Greater Bethlehem Temple Church fire also caused damage. Ervin Ricks, Church communications director, said: ABC 16 the area of the church that housed the children’s Sunday school was damaged by the fire.
“We can’t always understand why people do evil, but we know it’s our job. Our job is to overcome evil with good. That’s why we are determined to continue to help this community.” Ricks told the outlet.
Patrick Armon, Jackson’s assistant fire chief, said he received news of the fires around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Jackson police, who were investigating the crimes such as arson, identified McLaurin as a suspect. Police spokesman Sam Brown said McLaurin was near the fires during the hours they were lit.
The city and police station posted his image on social media warning that the suspect was considered dangerous but not armed. He was captured several hours later.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during the city council meeting on Tuesday that the fires are “presumed to be arson”.
Commenting on speculation that the timing could be election-related, Lumumba said, “it’s too early in the investigation to know what the motive might be.”
No polling stations were affected, Armon said.
Democratic congressional candidate Shuwaski Young of District 3 released a statement early Tuesday morning calling the fires “terrorism.”
“Several churches were torched this morning on Election Day in Jackson, Mississippi,” the statement said. “These cowardly actions invoke historic acts of terrorism as people fight for their right to vote and live peacefully as Americans and Mississippians. We will not be deterred and will not be intimidated. We will not allow domestic terrorists to suppress our voting rights. ask all Mississippians to vote, regardless of these decades-old intimidation tactics to suppress our votes today. Just vote.”
Jackson officials have not linked the fires with an attempt to influence Tuesday’s election.
Contributors: freelance writer Ed Inman; Associated Press