ON OCTOBER 8, 2015, St. Louis County Police Detective Rob Keithley arrived at Bethel Nondenominational Church, a squat single-story of whitewashed block with barred windows in Jennings. It was around 10 p.m., but the flashing lights of fire trucks and police cars lit up the neighborhood. Keithley walked to the side entrance of the church, where he saw black tracks from flame and smoke that had climbed the bright-blue door and onto the wall. The blaze had just begun to spread to the interior before the fire department arrived. As the detective approached, an unmistakable odor hit his nose: gasoline.
Keithley’s first thoughts were of Ferguson. The unrest of August 2014 was never far from the detective’s mind. Keithley had been called in that first Sunday night to help hold the line outside the Walgreens at Lucas & Hunt Road, just a few miles from the Jennings church. He’d been charged with tracking the crowd’s wake, sifting through the smoldering hose-soaked husks of cars, businesses, and homes in search of the source of ignition. Two weeks of 12-hour work nights—not knowing where the next bottle, stone, or bullet might come from or where the next fire would start—had him living on edge, afraid for himself, his officers, and, especially, for his community.
Keithley knew the area well. He had patrolled Jennings as a local cop for three years before transferring to the St. Louis County Police in 2008. He also knew fire: In 2010, he was awarded a Medal of Valor by the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association for pulling two people from a burning building.
The combustible tinge of accelerant in the night air told Keithley that this blaze was intentionally set. The fact that the fire originated outside the church door pointed to someone who didn’t have access to the building. Subsequent interviews with the pastor, custodian, and administrators revealed no obvious feuds. All signs pointed to an attack on the church and its predominantly African-American congregation.
Two days later, he received a report of another church fire, this one less than 2 miles north, on Goodfellow Boulevard. On October 14 and 15, there were two more. Any arson of a church raises a flag in the minds of investigators—it can be a federal crime. All of these blazes started at the foot of an exterior door. All of the scenes contained traces of accelerant. All four churches served predominantly African-American congregations. Keithley had to consider all possible motives, but the smoke of the riots lingered in his memory. He couldn’t help but wonder: “Does this have anything to do with Ferguson?”
Over the following week, as three more area churches were set afire, the media grappled with that very question. The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and The Atlantic were among the throngs of news outlets whose reporters parachuted into the city to cover the serial arsons.
Meanwhile, Keithley was on high alert, working long days and on call at night, watching as the fires increased in intensity. Under pressure from the public, the press, and higher-ups and fearing more destruction and the possibility of someone getting hurt, he and his fellow investigators were desperate to find the arsonist.
He quietly hoped that the media’s narrative—and his own private suspicions—were wrong.
THE CHURCH FIRES of October 2015 would be one of the first big tests for Keithley and the newly created St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson Unit. Two years earlier, in an attempt to cut costs and confusion, commissioners had announced that they would form a single unit to serve the entire metro area, combining the city and county police departments’ bomb and arson divisions. They’d looked for ways to pool equipment and resources: The county’s lab, for instance, would process the city’s arson and explosives evidence, a function that at one time could take more than six months, because the city had to outsource the work to the Missouri Highway Patrol, FBI, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The 10-person unit consisted of four detectives and, sharing command, one sergeant from each dissolved body. There was tension from the start, including a tug-of-war over the location of the unit’s headquarters that dragged on almost to the day they opened shop at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, downtown. “The merger was an issue,” says Sergeant Chris Stamper, who’d been heading up the city unit. “You had two different departments, two different cultures coming together, and all the administration that comes with it. We were like stepchildren for a while.”
Add to that volatile mix the fact that most bomb squad officers are essentially volunteers who’ll gladly slap on a bomb suit and march straight into some of the most dangerous, pressure-packed situations imaginable. “We don’t want someone who is a cowboy,” says Stamper, “but it’s definitely a type A personality.”
The “Bomb” in “Bomb and Arson Unit” gets all the glory. It’s the Die Hard and Hurt Locker wire-snipping that people always want to know about. The unit office is strewn with old bomb suits hanging on mannequins, rover-like robots on call for a diffusing or removal, and shelves of old detonators, ignition switches, and improvised explosive devices (all inert). Though the detectives do spend a great deal of time keeping up with innovations in IEDs and bomb tech certification, fortunately there haven’t been many terrorism incidents or threats here.
The unit spends roughly 70 percent of its time investigating arson— more tedious, less glamorous work. Both the St. Louis Fire Department and the local office of the ATF have fire investigation units. The St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson Unit is only called in when the fire department has reason to believe there’s a criminal element to a fire; in 2016, that happened about 345 times.
Arson is a difficult crime to solve. Much, if not all, of the evidence is usually incinerated. It’s often hard, especially early on, to distinguish a premeditated arson from an accident—a discarded cigarette or stray spark from an electrical wire. Motives vary widely, from personal or political animus to insurance fraud to the whims of a pyromaniac. And by the time the suspect is brought to trial, what’s left of the crime scene has often been demolished and swept away. Data collected by the FBI from a wide range of police forces nationwide show that as of 2015, arson arrest rates were lower (2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants) than for any offense other than gambling and that only about 20 percent of arson cases are ever cleared by arrest.
Keithley, a former firefighter, lives for this test. With his neatly tucked polo shirt, breast pocket pen, and slightly nasal matter-of-fact voice, he gives the air of an engineer as much as that of a cop. Even colleagues poke fun at him for the meticulous way in which he approaches a case, consulting books and websites about fire study. They call him a fire nerd. “It’s like solving a puzzle,” he says. “It’s very different than most of the crimes you find. It’s also the hardest crime to actually clear, so it’s a good challenge.”
It’s also a sort of marriage between science and criminal investigation. There are two phases to a fire investigation. First is cause determination. Detectives walk and pick and shovel through rubble to find the point of origin. Along the way, they run through a sort of mental checklist, eliminating certain scenarios as they form their hypothesis. Specially trained dogs are brought in to sniff out accelerants, and samples are collected and sent to the lab.
Unlike other areas of criminal justice, in which cases are built on probable cause or reasonable suspicion, arson must be scientifically proved. “Attorneys can really pick you apart in court if you don’t follow the rigid procedures,” says Keithley. Once the hypothesis is borne out through this rigor, then comes the second phase: finding the person who struck the match.
Criminally set fires are somewhat sporadic. “There are days when nothing goes on and we can decompress, and we take those opportunities gladly,” says Stamper. “Then there are times when it’s three full days of shit-hits-the-fan, when the day starts and goes until 10:30 a.m. the next morning.”
The church fires fell into this category. Once it became apparent that a serial arsonist was attacking churches, the entire unit began working overtime, poring over incident reports and lab results, hunting down surveillance footage and interviewing possible witnesses, fielding calls with possible tips, fielding media inquiries from dozens of outlets, helping a national response team that had been called in from Washington, D.C., get acclimated.
With each passing day, public and media pressure brought more heat from politicians, police commissioners, and higher-ups. Even when the detectives were able to go home, they slept uneasily, anticipating the next midnight call.
FIREBUGS ARE TYPICALLY nocturnal. Darkness provides better cover for illicit activity, and there are fewer potential witnesses. If the arsonist is just trying to collect insurance or send a message, the targeted building is more likely to be unoccupied.
So Detective Richard Wilderson was initially perplexed by the report of a possible arson at 4:38 p.m.—during rush hour—on Wednesday, October 14, 2015. The novelty of the timing was quickly trumped by the location: St. Augustine Catholic Church, 5901 Minerva, front doors set on fire.
Those initial church fires had been in or near North County, but this fire was farther south, in the city, in the heart of Hamilton Heights. Had a separate county unit investigated those initial incidents, city cop Wilderson might not have known about them for some time— they received little to no press coverage. But because he and Keithley were working in neighboring cubicles, Wilderson would soon come to recognize the blossoming arsonist’s calling card.
Wilderson is a stark city contrast to Keithley’s county Joe Friday. A 16-year SLMPD veteran, Wilderson is loose and constantly cracking wise and laughing. He had no real experience in fire investigation when he transferred to Bomb and Arson six years ago but says he was more drawn to the explosives side of the job. “It goes back to when you’re a child, you know?” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to deal with fire and blowing stuff up?”
Of course, he extinguishes the jokes when he’s called to join a case.
Wilderson pulled the unit’s Chevy response truck up to the Gothic church, in the shadow of its lofty brick spire, and as he climbed the concrete steps, he immediately saw black stains at the threshold, markings creeping up from the base of the red-painted wooden doors. He noticed a mirror image of the burns on the inside of the doors, but that was where the damage appeared to end. Bits of charred wood and debris were scattered on the top step, where Wilderson found a burn pattern shaped like a puddle, a finding consistent with a liquid accelerant. He called in Chloe, the unit’s accelerant-detection canine.
The black Labrador retriever arrived alongside Detective Dave Sandbach, who placed samples from the wreckage in paint cans. He then lined up the cans away from the area and let Chloe go to work, running her snout down the line. The dog, with her keen nose, was trained to sniff out six classifications of accelerant, from gas to odorless lighter fluid. If Chloe responded to a can, that sample was sent to the lab for confirmation. In this case, the sample that got Chloe’s attention tested positive for gasoline.
The dog’s job was done in less than 10 minutes, but Wilderson’s work was just beginning. After interviews with the priest and custodians, a general canvassing for witnesses, and a fruitless search for surveillance footage, the detective returned to the office and then went home.
Wilderson was asleep at 1 a.m., when the on-call pager started buzzing on his nightstand: another fire, this one at New Testament Church of Christ, less than two blocks from the scene he’d just investigated. Again, the fire appeared to originate at the church door.
“We were starting to get concerned that maybe someone was targeting African-American churches,” Wilderson says.
FOR ALL THEIR CONCERN, the detectives still had no solid leads. The second Minerva Avenue church turned out to be long abandoned, so there were no witnesses or video footage to help move the investigation forward—just a scorched rear door and the lingering scent of gasoline.
Keithley and Wilderson, whom Stamper had put in charge of the investigation, were pretty sure they were looking for the same culprit. They knew that the arsonist was mostly operating at night, when the buildings were vacant, and setting fires outside entrances rather than breaking in. “They’re not trying to hurt anyone,” Wilderson would later say. “This person is just trying to cause damage and make people nervous.”
Still, there was no clear motive. The arsonist was clearly targeting places of worship, but the four churches were home to different denominations. Yes, they were all predominantly African- American congregations, but there had been no graffiti or message to imply that the arsonist was racially motivated. The investigators couldn’t let themselves be influenced by conjecture.
Four calls in one week, coming at an increasing frequency—and no suggestion that the fires would stop anytime soon—had shifted the detectives from a reactionary position to a proactive approach. The local media had reported on the crimes, and police and fire departments began to raise awareness in the neighborhoods. The detectives attended prayer services and other community events. When Stamper was off duty, friends would ask about the mysterious fire starter. Citizens were more alert, and the detectives felt even greater pressure to solve the case before more damage could be done.
“Serial arsonists are not all that common, but normally they progress,” Keithley would later say. “Usually you’ll get, like, 30 to 40 fires over a long period of time, and they learn as they go—this time could be an exterior, but next time they might break in and set it in inside, where it spreads more.”
The detectives’ fear was quickly validated. At 4 a.m. Saturday, October 17—barely 48 hours since the previous fire—Wilderson’s on-call pager again woke him from a light sleep. This time it was New Life Missionary Baptist Church in Walnut Park East, about 3 miles north of the Minerva fires. When he arrived on the scene, he could see that, again, the blaze had originated at the base of the front door. This time, though, the destruction was much worse. Flames had climbed the entrance and engulfed the shingle roof. The fire had burst into the foyer, causing significant smoke damage. Again the accelerant was present. Again there were no witnesses.
“The Bomb Squad walked me through how they had analyzed the situation, how the fire had spread and what was going to happen next,” says New Life Pastor David Triggs, who had immediately been called to the scene. Triggs says the detectives were careful not to make assumptions as to who might have done this and why— just saying that they were going to catch the culprit. “Half the world wanted me to be angry and pissed off at this person; the other half wanted me to love them,” Triggs says. “Even though it looked like it might be racially motivated, [the arson investigators] did a really good job of keeping those opinions to themselves. When you’re in the midst of a fire or any kind of trial, you can’t begin healing until you put aside the idea of hatred that will just inspire more anger.”
Thirteen hours later, the pink doors of Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Baden were splashed with gas and set ablaze in broad daylight. But the flame didn’t catch on the brick building, and the damage was so limited, it wasn’t even noticed until church officials showed up for a service the next morning.
When Wilderson arrived at Ebenezer, he could barely see any debris. The concrete steps were clean—except for a Newport cigarette butt a few feet from the door. Detectives asked church officials whether anyone smoked in the area. No, never. Chloe then signaled that the butt smelled of accelerant. It was bagged and sent off to the lab for DNA analysis.
Finally, a clue.
AT 1:24 P.M. OCTOBER 20, 2015, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin broke into the nationwide broadcast with a report: “St. Louis area authorities are searching for whoever targeted six predominantly black churches and set them on fire. Investigators say the arsons happened over nine days… All the churches are in the areas right around Ferguson.”
A story in The New York Times, “St. Louis Officials Believe Arsons at 6 Black Churches Are Linked,” noted that the ATF was offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. USA Today, The Atlantic, and other national media latched on to the racial Ferguson narrative.
Meanwhile, Wilderson and the unit were piecing together a completely different picture. While the cigarette butt was at the lab being tested, officials discovered surveillance footage from a private security camera near New Life MBC. The grainy black-and-white video showed a vehicle speeding away from the church just after the fire was started. The detectives couldn’t make out the license plate or make and model, but they could see that the car was an older sedan with passenger side doors a darker shade than the rest of the body. The rest of the unit was briefed and, when not handling other fires, called to lend a hand interviewing, canvassing— anything that might be required.
An anonymous call to the Crime Stoppers hotline came in the next day. The caller described a black man—25 to 32 years old, 5-foot-8, 230 pounds, covered in tattoos—who’d recently been released on parole. The source believed the suspect, nicknamed Chub, had been sleeping in his car—a sedan, possibly a Lincoln Town Car, that was gray but had two black doors.
On October 22, there was another fire, this one at the gas-soaked step of the Shrine of St. Joseph. The minimally damaged church was a bit of an outlier: It was in Columbus Square, almost 10 miles from the other churches, and its parishioners were mostly white. Nonetheless, the differences did little to disperse the racial overtones of the media’s narrative.
Four days later, just over a week after the Newport cigarette was found on the steps of Ebenezer Lutheran, Wilderson received the results from the county police lab. Technicians had found DNA on the butt, run it through the system, and gotten a hit: David Lopez Jackson, a 35-year-old African-American man with a history of receiving stolen property, unlawfully using weapons, selling drugs, resisting arrest, and damaging property. Among the photos were snapshots of distinguishing tattoos, including one of flames shooting up Lopez’s neck. “Chub” was needled into his arm.
“We had been working leads, and nothing was panning out,” says Wilderson. “When [the video and DNA] came in, it was like the puzzle was getting put together. We had tangible pieces that were leading to each other and starting to connect.”
Further investigation pulled up a 911 call from Jackson’s mother, made two days earlier. She’d told the dispatcher that she was afraid of her son, who had threatened to harm her, and that there was a strong smell of gasoline in the house. A database search pulled up the license plate number of Jackson’s car: a silver Lincoln Town Car with black doors.
Jackson was arrested in that Lincoln three days later. Inside the car, police found a few discarded packs of Newport cigarettes and, in the trunk, a partially full fuel can and a red Igloo thermos, smelling of gasoline.
SEVERAL MONTHS LATER, on a 92-degree day this past July, half a dozen officers wearing shirts emblazoned with “St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson Unit” gathered with friends and a few family members beneath a tent at a shooting range near Eureka. Some of the T-shirts bore the official logo of the division: an aerial bomb, topped with the scales of justice, beneath the Gateway Arch. Others showed the unofficial logo: the Grim Reaper in a bomb suit, holding his scythe in one skeletal hand and a cartoonish bomb in the other. (One of the detectives knows a guy who prints T-shirts.)
A Rubbermaid cooler labeled “Explosives” sat near a folding table full of barbecue and sides. (In fact, it was full of ice-cold Aquafina.) On a picnic table to one side lay the real explosives: TNT bound with duct tape, bricks of C4, a Folgers can containing a roll of nitro-methane-soaked toilet paper, 3-gallon jugs of a gas/diesel cocktail… (Every six months or so, the bomb unit detonates various grades of explosives as a means of instructing trainees.)
The officers passed out earplugs. When the signal was given, an officer yelled, “Fire in the hole!” three times, cuing another person to count backward from three and press the detonator. There was a split-second delay before the pop and percussion. With each explosion, the sound—and the thump against the chest—intensified. Even for seasoned members of the squad, it’s a powerful reminder of the nature of the job, as well as a way to build trust among co-workers.
It’s also a chance for the officers to decompress, to literally blow off steam. They can share a little of what they do with the families who, during a prolonged crime spree like the church fires, might not get to see them all that much. Wilderson’s 9-year-old son was among those spectators restricted to the barbecue tent, a safe distance from the bomb buffet. He picked at a pulled pork sandwich and some chips as he waited. “Dad,” the boy asked, “are you going to blow up bombs yet?”
When Jackson was apprehended, Wilderson was glad to get back to his son, then 7, after weeks of focusing on this case. But there was much about the fires that remained unresolved. Jackson refused to speak to authorities. His possible motives were anyone’s guess. The court had ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation on a previous offense; in the 911 call, his mother had referred to him as “schizophrenic.” Mrs. Jackson was also, apparently, very religious—under interrogation, one of Jackson’s friends said Jackson had told her that his mother cared more about Jesus than about him.
Pastor Triggs has another theory. “The doors of a church are symbolic,” he says. “When a person is hurting and they walk into that church and they can’t find the love they’re seeking, they are spiritually scarred. He strategically attacked the doors of the churches. I believe he was sending a message, not to those individual churches but to the body of believers.”
Then, of course, some arsonists—for instance, those who might be decked out in flame tattoos—just like to watch things burn. “Keeping an open mind during an investigation is always very important,” says Keithley. “I didn’t really have that problem in this case, because the possibilities were so open, especially since there were so many denominations being targeted. While the media kept focusing on a possible Ferguson connection, we had no set motive or profile.”
And when it became clear that one of those possible reasons was not Ferguson-related and probably had nothing to do with race, the national media quickly moved on. “It didn’t fit the narrative that the media wanted,” says Stamper, “so that buzz kind of died quickly.”
There was little national fanfare on March 27 this year, more than 17 months after Keithley responded to that first fire in Jennings, when Jackson pleaded guilty to starting fires at New Life Missionary Baptist and Ebenezer Lutheran. (The circuit attorney charged Jackson with these two church fires because there was surveillance footage of his car at New Life and the crucial cigarette butt was found at Ebenezer; he remains a suspect in the other five cases.) Jackson was sentenced to five years in state prison.
“While I would have liked to have seen Jackson charged with some of the additional fires, I also understand that the circuit attorney’s office in the city and the prosecuting attorneys in the county have limited resources,” says Keithley. “Unless additional evidence would’ve been obtained, they likely would have been using up resources on a case they couldn’t win.”
Yet the church fires were undeniably a high-profile victory for the fledgling Bomb and Arson Unit, a watershed moment, a point of pride. The case provided an example of what was possible when city and county officials worked together. “Generally with law enforcement agencies, when there’s a crime across jurisdictions, sometimes egos get in the way and information sharing isn’t always accurate or fast,” says Stamper. “That was the biggest benefit in this case. We had an established relationship, so the egos were out of the way.”
And perhaps an unintended effect of the long days and intense pressure was that it quickly brought the county and city officers together—such that on a sweltering day in July, they could come together at a county gun range and have a little safe fun together.
The detectives were ready, the trainees in place. All was still as an officer shouted, “Fire in the hole!”
Top photo by Kevin A. Roberts