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Two Blacks Charged in Fire at Black Church in North Carolina

June 20, 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 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.

In neighboring Robeson County, authorities ruled out race as a motive in the arson of the largely-black Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Volunteer firefighter Billy Shawn Baxley, 17, who is white, was arrested Tuesday and confessed to starting the blaze, said William Bryan, assistant fire chief.

On Tuesday, Easley ruled out arson in a fire at another black church, Hills Chapel Baptist Church in adjacent Pender County. Investigators found a problem in a wiring supply circuit leading to four fluorescent light fixtures in the church’s ceiling.

The string of 43 fires across the South since Jan. 1, 1995 has raised fears of resurgent racism.

Also Wednesday:

_ Mississippi arson investigators scooped up evidence from the charred rubble of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, one of two black churches destroyed by fire Monday night in Kossuth. The fires at Mount Pleasant and Central Grove Missionary Baptist Church were reported just 17 minutes apart.

_ Maryland officials ruled a a pre-dawn fire at a black church was accidental, traced to an electical socket at St. John’s United Methodist Church.

_ Members of a Virginia church were angry that the apparent arson fire at First Baptist Church of Centralia on April 16 wasn’t on the ATF’s list of 37 suspicious fires at black churches. An ATF officials said it probably wasn’t included because the building hadn’t been used for regular services since 1962. Church members said they still used the building for Bible studies and special services and events.

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