By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) – Federal and state officials in Louisiana are investigating suspicious fires that destroyed three predominantly black churches in 10 days in one mostly rural parish, authorities said on Saturday.
Investigators have not concluded whether the three fires at Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of New Orleans, were connected, said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Fire Marshall’s Office.
They also have not determined whether the blazes, which occurred between March 26 and Thursday, were intentionally set, she said in an email. At a news conference on Thursday, State Fire Marshall Butch Browning was asked if investigators were treating the fires as potential hate crimes.
“If the hate crime definition was violated, we will certainly vet those things out,” Browning said.
The number of hate crimes in the United States increased 17 percent in 2017, the third consecutive year such attacks rose, according to FBI data released last fall.
Investigators probing the St. Landry Parish fires were awaiting lab results but view the three blazes as “suspicious,” Browning said at the news conference.
Without giving details, he said certain “patterns” had been discovered, but that it was too early to say whether a single individual had started the fires.
“There certainly is a commonality and whether that leads to a person or persons or groups, we don’t know,” Browning said.
The fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, the parish seat.
The FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined in the investigation, Browning said.
Investigators have concluded that a fourth fire last Sunday, more than 200 miles outside St. Landry Parish at a predominantly white church in Vivian in northwest Louisiana, was intentionally set, state fire officials said in a statement.
That fire, inside the sanctuary at Vivian United Pentecostal Church, was relatively small and burned itself out.
No one has been arrested in connection with any of the church fires, which have not resulted in any injuries, officials said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Brown)