U.S. church arsonist sentenced to 42 years

Published January 1, 2001

An Indiana man hostile to Christianity has been sentenced to 42 years in prison for arson attacks at more than two dozen U.S. churches in the mid- and late-1990s.

Jay Scott Ballinger, 38, confessed to attacks on more than 25 churches in at least eight states in the southern and midwest United States. A self-described “missionary of Lucifer,” Mr. Ballinger faces other charges for five church fires in Georgia.

He was sentenced in November after pleading guilty in July to 20 counts of destroying church property. He was also ordered to pay $3.6 million (U.S.) in restitution.

Mr. Ballinger’s crimes were part of what was labelled a national epidemic of church fires in the 1990s. Hundreds of such fires were set, many of them at churches with mainly black congregations, leading to claims that they were racially motivated. The attacks became a subject of intense discussion across the United States, prompting expressions of concern by President Bill Clinton, and the establishment of the National Church Arson Task Force.

Mr. Ballinger, who is white, attacked both black and white churches. He carried out more acts of arson than any other church arsonist, authorities said.

Mr. Ballinger’s girlfriend, Angela Wood, aged 25, was sentenced to almost 17 years in prison. She had claimed that Mr. Ballinger beat her, threatening her if she did not act as an accomplice.

Rose Johnson-Mackey, of the National Coalition for Burned Churches, noted that the churches targeted were spread across several states, from Indiana and Ohio in the midwest, to Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina in the South, along with California.

Many of the churches, Ms. Johnson-Mackey said, were in isolated areas. “You’d have to do a lot of work to find some of these churches. The question we have is whether we are just getting the tip of the iceberg.”

An investigation conducted by her organisation shows 826 church arson attacks in the United States from 1995 to 1997, and up to 700 since 1998.


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