Athens churches apparently torched

ATHENS?A Southern Baptist church was one of two churches in the Athens area heavily damaged by what investigators believe were arson fires set in the early morning hours Tuesday, marking the third such church fire in a week near the East Texas city.

Local authorities are being aided in their investigation by the state fire marshal’s office and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Authorities suspected burglary at the churches, but Athens Assistant Police Chief Rodney Williams said the investigation is in its early stages.

“I would assume that it is arson, but as far as the motive, we will probably never know,” said John Green, pastor of Lake Athens Baptist Church, which sustained an estimated $500,000 damage to its auditorium. “But our hearts are full and our spirits are encouraged. We believe God is going to bring something good out of this.”

Athens Fire Chief John McQueary said investigators are also seeking clues to a fire early Tuesday at Grace Community Church in rural Henderson County near Athens, as well as a fire last week at nearby Faith Church.

McQueary said dogs trained in detecting accelerants were picking up scents that point to arson, but further testing to confirm that might take up to a week.

Green said he is thankful that the church office was not damaged and the gym had only minor smoke and water damage.

Lake Athens was scheduled to meet for its Wednesday night services at a local fish hatchery and Sunday at a music hall in Athens.

The church fires follow two others in recent weeks in nearby Van Zandt County, the Athens Daily Review reported.

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