BOLIGEE, Ala. -- Fires damaged or destroyed four more Baptist churches across the Alabama countryside yesterday, less than a week after a string of five blazes that were ruled arson.
Church member Johnny Archibald said smoke was pouring from Morning Star Baptist in Boligee when he arrived around daybreak.
''They had kicked the door in," he said. ''Evidently they had set the pulpit on fire and went out the front door."
Yesterday's fires took place at churches off rural roads, about 10 to 20 miles apart. They were in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where five churches were burned early Friday.
FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators were working on the assumption that the nine fires are linked.
Authorities have no suspects or motive, Burrus said in an interview in Washington, D.C.
Rich Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agency, said more than 50 agents are now assigned to the investigation in Alabama. ''This is our number one priority nationally," he said.
The fire that damaged Dancy First Baptist Church yesterday in Pickens County appeared to be arson, said Sheriff David Abston. He said volunteer firefighters responded to a burglar alarm that went off at 5:13 a.m.
Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said investigators were pursuing several leads in last week's fires, but ''the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."
Investigators took tire impressions from the mud of a dirt road in Sumter County near Galilee Baptist, one of the churches destroyed yesterday.
Morning Star Baptist was burned to its foundation yesterday. Another church was destroyed, and two were damaged. In the Bibb County fires, three churches were destroyed and two damaged.
Ingram said there have been 59 church fires in Alabama in the past five years, including the nine reported in the past four days, and 19 were ruled arsons.
The FBI said it is looking into whether the Bibb County fires were civil rights violations under laws covering attacks on religious property. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered. The nine churches that burned included both white and black congregations.
Archibald said the side door of Morning Star Baptist had a footprint on it, and he and another man removed the door for potential use as evidence.