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Two Blacks Charged in Fire at Black Church in North Carolina

June 19, 1996

WHITEVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ Two black men were arrested Wednesday and charged with arson in the burning last month of a black church, one of more than three dozen such fires under investigation across the South.

Rodney Bullock and Curtis Gilbert Jr. are charged with burning a building they were remodeling at Mount Tabor Baptist Church in Cerro Gordo on May 23. Cerro Gordo is about 20 miles from Whiteville.

Bullock, 21, of Fairbluff, was charged with one count of unlawful burning of a church. Gilbert, 32, of Winnebow was charged with conspiracy to commit arson. The suspects were scheduled to appear in court Thursday.

Greg Rideout, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Easley, said there was ``absolutely no evidence″ the fire was racially motivated. Authorities declined to discuss a possible motive.

Gilbert is a contractor who was hired to remodel a former school on the church grounds for use as an education building; Bullock was his employee, Sheriff Jimmy Ferguson said.

Ferguson said an anonymous tip the day after the fire led authorities to the suspects.

``We had to make sure that we were looking at the right people, get more information,″ Ferguson said in explaining the delayed arrests.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Robeson County, authorities ruled out race as a motive in the arson on another black church.

Billy Shawn Baxley, 17, who is white, was arrested Tuesday in the fire at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.

Baxley, a volunteer firefighter, confessed to starting the blaze, said William Bryan, assistant fire chief.

On Tuesday, Easley ruled out arson in a fire at another black church. An investigation of the blaze at Hills Chapel Baptist Church in Rocky Point showed a problem in a wiring supply circuit leading to four florescent light fixtures in the church’s ceiling.

The string of nearly 40 fires across the South in the past year and a half has raised fears of resurgent racism.

Update hourly