Fire, faith, and forgiveness: East Texas church fires 10 years later

“We have forgiven them”

Fire, faith, and forgiveness: East Texas church fires 10 years later

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - Hidden away down a Van Zandt county road near Canton, you’ll find Little Hope Baptist Church.

“It’s always been a real loving church and one that helps people,” longtime member J.D. ‘Wick’ Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson grew up around the corner from the church and has attended for all of his life. He remembers Jan. 1, 2010 as a day this church came under attack. Little Hope Baptist Church would be the first in a series of church fires across East Texas during the first several weeks of 2010.

“It’s obvious whoever is doing this, the intent is to destroy the church,” said an official in 2010.

In the beginning, the cause of the fire at Little Hope was ruled accidental. It wouldn’t be considered a case of arson until weeks later.

“Why? This is the Lord’s house. It’s such a shame that somebody can be such an unbeliever," said a church member.

Over the course of more than 40 days, East Texas fire departments responded to 10 church fires.

  • January 1 – Little Hope Baptist Church, Canton
  • January 1 – Faith Church, Athens
  • January 12 – Lake Athens Baptist Church, Henderson County
  • January 12 – Grace Community Church, Athens
  • January 16 – Tyland Baptist Church, Tyler
  • January 17 – First Church of Christ Scientist, Tyler
  • January 20 – Prairie Creek Fellowship, Lindale
  • February 4 – Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, Wills Point
  • February 8 – Dover Baptist Church, Lindale
  • February 8 – Clear Spring Missionary Baptist Church, Smith-Van Zandt county line

Neal Franklin, former Tyler fire chief, remembers being called out to the fire at First Church of Christ Scientist.

“I was concerned because I believe there was a basement in that building, and I was more concerned with my firefighter’s safety and I hadn’t even considered that it might be arson and it might be this same person," Franklin said. “We were all fearful of what could happen and we just didn’t know what would be next.”

As more churches burned, the investigation ramped up with the ATF sending in their national response team to help out local authorities. At one point, Texas Governor Rick Perry toured the damage at one of the churches.

“As another burned and then another, it became clear that evil was afoot," Perry said in 2010.

According to former ATF investigator and current Smith Co. Sheriff Larry Smith, the big break would come after the fire in Wills Point. Eventually, one of the suspects was also caught on camera going inside of the Atwoods store on the loop in Tyler and carving a message on the wall of a bathroom stall. It read," Little Hope was arson."

“Jason Robert Bourque, 19, of Lindale, and Daniel George McAlister, 21, of Ben Wheeler have been charged with the arson," said an official at a news conference on Feb. 22, 2010.

While Bourque didn’t say much about the fires, McAllister did.

“We were on drugs and it clouded our judgment,” McAllister said to the media.

In an interview with a Texas Ranger and the ATF, McAllister said he stopped attending church after his mother died. He said he didn’t have anything against churches or the people in them.

McAllister continues to serve out his multiple life sentences at a prison in Gatesville, Texas. Jason Bourque is serving his time at the Coffield Unit in Anderson County. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Bourque will be eligible for parole on April 8, 2020.

Back at the reconstructed Little Hope Baptist Church, there were about 50 people at this Sunday’s 11 a.m. service. One of them told us that if the men responsible for the fires ever wanted to come and worship with them, they would be welcomed with open arms.

“We don’t hold any grudges against them," J.D. Wilkerson said. "I just hope that some way or another they’ll realize what they did, and I’m sure they have by now. And they can get forgiveness for it. We have forgiven them.”

Copyright 2020 KLTV. All rights reserved.