As the clock ticked past 3:30 a.m. Feb. 21, 2010, SWAT members clenched automatic weapons and readied themselves outside a double-wide mobile home in Grand Saline.
With Skeen's signature, ATF agent Larry Smith and Texas Ranger Brent Davis had the green light to arrest Jason Robert Bourque and Daniel George McAllister, the two men whose church-burning spree last year ran from Jan. 1 to Feb. 8.
Smith and Davis gave the order, and SWAT members launched flash grenades through the windows of the mobile home at 24760 Farm-to-Market 857 in northwest Smith County, smashed the front door and rushed in to find a stunned and disoriented Bourque.
Daniel McAllister confession (KYTX CBS 19 video) -- #1 of 3 (WARNING: Videos contain offensive language)
Soon, agents learned that the Texas Rangers had snared McAllister, 22, at his girlfriend's home hundreds of miles away in Seguin.
The arrests marked the end of an unprecedented East Texas investigation that ultimately hinged on DNA, a phone tip, a lone fingerprint and shoe and boot prints, according to the arrest warrants.
The apprehension also ended investigators' relentless hunt for the arsonists, with many nights spent in cars for surveillance purposes.
And lastly, East Texas church congregations, many of whom spent nights keeping watch over their places of worship, could breathe a sigh of relief.
In the year following the arrests, Bourque and McAllister have pleaded guilty to the fires in courts in three counties. They have been sentenced to life in prison.
With the case closed, agents recently provided the Tyler Morning Telegraph with investigation details.
HOPE WAS ARSON
The kickoff fire Jan. 1, 2010, at Little Hope Baptist Church near Canton initially was thought to be the result of an electrical problem.
Two hours later, fire gutted Faith Baptist Church in Athens. Less than two weeks later, fire claimed two more Athens churches, Lake Athens Baptist and Grace Community.
Three more churches — Tyland Baptist and First Church of Christ, Scientist in Tyler and Fellowship of Prairie Creek in Lindale — burned that month.
Another three — Russell Memorial United Methodist in Wills Point, Dover Baptist in Tyler and Clear Springs Missionary Baptist in Lindale — were torched in February. Bourque and McAllister also were believed responsible for break-ins at three Baptist churches in Tyler: Heritage, Clear View and Pine Brook.
In a recent interview at a downtown Tyler restaurant, Clay Alexander, Tyler ATF senior resident agent in charge, recounted the investigation's twists and turns.
Agents at first wondered whether copy-cat arsons set off the Grace Community and Lake Athens blazes. But with the Tyland fire Jan. 16, Alexander knew his office needed help.
“That's when we called in the National Response Team and the Texas Rangers to help us because we had scenes we were still investigating and the fires kept happening,” Alexander said. “It was really kind of unreal.
“We wanted these arsonists, and many of my guys would spend the night in their cars as they worked this case and the other cases here in our area. We were also worried that someone was going to get hurt. We had firefighters responding to fires, and we had regular citizens guarding churches.
“We didn't know what was going to happen.”
At the time an ATF agent, Larry Smith, who was attached to an NRT and had responded to the Pentagon following the 9-11 attacks, was among the first investigators involved in the case.
The next church to burn, on Jan. 16, was Tyland Baptist, and Smith and his wife, Leslie, were watching the musical “Wizard of Oz” at the Cowan Center when his phone rang.
“So I had to get up and leave,” he said. “We activated the NRT that night, and the following night the NRT was actually in the air on their way here when the Christian Science church on Broadway fire was set.
“That one was really like a slap in the face for most of us, because it was right there near downtown Tyler.”
Smith, now an ATF retiree running for Smith County sheriff, was here to offer his expertise in arson and explosives. Other members of NRT, a federal agency, included chemists, engineers and interviewers. Nina, an accelerant-detecting dog, sniffed out fire scenes, but chemists detected no accelerants in their testing.
Evidence showed that the Tyland blaze started in the baptistery, while the First Church of Christ, Scientists fire was set around the organ.
Fires at other churches were set in and around pulpits and in doorways in different parts of the churches. Musical instruments were missing from two of the Athens churches.
Texas Ranger Sgt. Brent Davis said he joined the investigation after the fire Jan. 20 at the Fellowship of Prairie Creek in Lindale. The fire was extinguished quickly thanks to a passing motorist's report.
Paired with ATF agent Smith, the two took the investigation's lead.
The NRT collected evidence from all the fire scenes, and an ATF geographical profiler, examining the Athens and Smith County fires, predicted that Wills Point and Grand Saline could be next.
But when two weeks passed without another fire and leads ran cold, the NRT packed up their equipment and left town.
But the NRT's absence would be short-lived.
On Feb. 4, McAllister and Bourque struck again, this time at the Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point.
“I'd say the geographical profiler was pretty dead on with her prediction,” Smith said. “We used this information and looked at the areas of the fires. Using that information, the teams were able to begin to focus on major choke points where major roadways came together.”
The fire was across the street from the Wills Point Volunteer Fire Department.
“Talk about bold,” Smith said. “I mean they even broke into the church on the side of the building closest to the fire department.
“It was like they were playing with us.”
This blaze, which fell on Alexander's 46th birthday, heightened investigators' fears when two firefighters barely escaped death as the roof collapsed.
“They just got out before the whole thing collapsed,” Smith said. “The hose was still in there when we began digging the fire out.”
SETTING UP SHOP
Following an order from the top of the ATF ladder, two NRT units were dispatched, and members were told they would stay until the arsonists were caught.
Since Athens was a central location in all of the fires, the next move for the newly formed East Texas Church Fires Task Force was converting an old National Guard Armory in Athens into a central investigation headquarters.
Smith said the task force was created to unify resources from local, state and federal agencies with one goal — stop the fires and catch the arsonists.
“We're talking about 70 ATF agents, 30 Texas Rangers, 40 Department of Public Safety criminal investigators, troopers, fire marshals and police and sheriff departments in three counties being a part of this investigation,” Smith said. “We had helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft up surveilling the area.”
With eight churches burned, firefighters and investigators' most challenging night was yet to come.
Hundreds of peace officers were on patrol in the area when two churches — Dover Baptist in Tyler and Clear Springs Missionary Baptist in Lindale — went up in flames in less than an hour of one another. In between, attempted break-ins were reported at Clear View and Pine Brook Baptist churches in Tyler.
“With the two fire scenes and two break-ins, there started to be rumors floating around that churches were on fire in several locations,” Alexander said. “We had to start checking everything. We were thinking that night that the arsonists were going to burn every church they came across.”
Texas Ranger Davis said investigators saw patterns in the fires: rocks or bricks thrown through a glass door to gain entry, the same shoe and boot prints and the stacking of items to use for setting fires. Those items included Bibles, pew cushions, hymnals, draperies, altar flowers and other flammables. The favorite areas were pulpits or the baptisteries, where fire could intensify quickly.
An FBI lab in Quantico, Va., determined the shoe prints belonged to a Skechers brand tennis shoe. Prints from the size-13 boots demanded more investigative work, which led to the Tyler Red Wing Store on Broadway Avenue.
“We went to the Red Wing store here and found out the boot was a Red Wing that had been discontinued,” Smith said. “The manager was able to find us a pair in Longview, so we bought them so we could compare them to the suspect's boots when we caught him.”
Investigators also had their hands on other evidence, including a fingerprint, DNA and a telling phone tip.
Hundreds of phone calls poured into the East Texas Church Fires Task Force, with investigators examining each and even developing potential suspects.
That changed Feb. 11 with a call from the wife of a friend of Bourque and McAllister's.
“She said that her husband, who had been burglarizing cars with the pair, had told her Bourque had jokingly said he and McAllister were the ones doing the fires,” Davis said. “Her husband then tried to recant, but she had her doubts, so she called the hotline.”
Smith said agents went to Bourque's grandparent's home at 13750 Karah Lane in Lindale to check on a blue Ford Focus that Bourque reportedly drove. They arrived to find Bourque and his grandmother.
“(The agents) just acted like they were just following leads and that it was no big deal,” Smith said. “But when they were allowed to look at the car in the garage, that is when they saw the muddy Skechers tennis shoes. They told Bourque thanks for his help and left.”
That left Bourque as a prime suspect.
A witness had reported that a car whose description matched the Ford Focus was seen near one of the church fires.
Meanwhile, investigators also learned that McAllister always wore Red Wing boots. McAllister's family identified his boots as identical to the discontinued Red Wings investigators obtained from the Longview store.
The caller Feb. 11 also gave investigators photos of guitars stolen from one of the Athens churches.
With Bourque and McAllister now the primary suspects, the East Texas Church Fires Task Force formed surveillance teams to keep tabs on the two.
After his encounter with investigators, Bourque, a Tyler Junior College student, moved out of his grandmother's house and into his girlfriend's home on FM 857, where agents set up surveillance in the woods.
Mobile teams followed Bourque daily, and Davis said they observed strange behavior.
“He just did some things that made it seem like he knew he was being watched,” he said. “But the big thing was that he was driving by some of the fire scenes on his way from TJC to his home, and these were not routes one would typically take.”
Bourque was observed by surveillance teams going into Atwoods on Loop 323 in Tyler with his father. A day later at the store came the discovery of the words “Little Hope was arson” carved into a restroom stall. What appeared to be an inverted cross with flames was carved around it. Agents removed the stall wall and sent it to Maryland for testing and obtained video from the store that showed Bourque had spent 5 minutes in the restroom.
Meanwhile, cameras and license-plate readers were hidden in equipment and signs along key highway sections in hopes of capturing glimpses of the two arsonists and keeping them from setting more fires.
Davis said surveillance showed Bourque attending church with his girlfriend and going to TJC's student Baptist center. While Bourque was on campus, an undercover DPS officer followed him, even sitting feet away from him as he smoked a cigarette.
When Bourque put the cigarette butt into an ashtray and left, the officer grabbed it as evidence. The butt was sent for DNA testing at an ATF lab in Avondale, Md.
Investigators also began talking to anyone they could find who knew Bourque or McAllister. They also recorded conversations of McAllister and his girlfriend and placed a tracking device on Bourque's car.
ATF agent Alexander said emerging evidence pointed toward Bourque and McAllister, but it was a DNA match only two hours before the arrest that locked in the warrants and sealed the case.
The DNA from Bourque's cigarette butt matched that taken from a rock found inside Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point.
“Learning the results of the DNA testing … was the galvanizing event for all of us to say collectively, ‘These are the guys,'” Alexander said.
Bourque and McAllister were in custody within an hour of Judge Skeen signing the arrest warrants.
Bourque immediately asked for an attorney and would not talk to Davis or Smith. McAllister, however, spoke with Davis at length in a videotaped interview about the fires and how he met Bourque.
The two met at church when McAllister was in fifth grade and Bourque in third. The two became friends and attended church together until McAllister's mother died of cancer, which made him turn against God.
McAllister, in an interview with Davis that lasted more than an hour, described how they broke into churches and consumed soft drinks and snacks before starting the fires.
McAllister claimed he never started the fires but admitted he was there.
“It was bad enough that I was there,” McAllister said.
With investigators not finding accelerants such as gasoline or lighter fluid, Davis asked what was used to start the fires.
McAllister said Bourque used Germ X hand sanitizer, which churches had stocked to help fight the H1N1 epidemic that broke out the previous year.
ATF agent Smith said hand sanitizers have high alcohol levels, and the other sanitizer ingredients give the substance a “wicking effect” that prevented chemists from detecting it as an accelerant.
“They built multi-leveled fires using pews, chairs, hymnals, Bibles, draperies, really whatever they could find, and they didn't just build one fire, but every church had multiple fire sets,” Smith said. “Except for the ones Bourque did by himself, you could tell it was like two people were working in concert with each other to construct these fires.”
And it would be two people who would face multiple counts of arson and attempted arson.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham, Henderson County District Attorney Scott McKee and Van Zandt County District Attorney Chris Martin agreed to go for the maximum penalty, and a year later, that's exactly what Bourque and McAllister received.
The two pled guilty to multiple counts of arson and attempted arson.
McAllister was sentenced to life for five counts of arson. His sentences run concurrently, and he must serve a minimum 15 years in prison before being eligible for parole.
Bourque was sentenced to life for 10 counts of arson and must serve 15 years before being eligible for parole on those charges. He then must also serve a 20-year sentence for attempted arson and an additional five years before being eligible for parole.
The next stop for the men is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but investigators said questions linger, such as the full reason why the two burned churches.
During the recent interview, ATF agent Alexander said the case's religious element could not be ignored.
“It didn't really test my faith, but it did put some things in perspective,” Alexander said. “I think everyone got frustrated at times during this investigation, but we always knew we would catch them eventually.”
Texas Ranger Davis, also was part of the interview, acknowledged that the case undeniably posed a new challenge.
“I tried to separate my faith from the fires, because all I wanted to do was catch the people responsible and stop the fires,” Davis said. “I will say it was a very trying case and one I would say was an eye-opener in my career. To coordinate such a large effort with such great results certainly changed the way I look at an investigation.
“The case was challenging mentally, physically and spiritually. The physical part is you were always exhausted, but then something would happen and boost the adrenaline. The mental side is that it's not like it is on TV. You can't just get into someone's mind and know why they would do something like this.”
Former ATF agent Smith, also part of the interview, said the case added new meaning to his life.
“I hadn't even really considered retiring from the ATF until this investigation,” Smith said. “It was during all of this that I was approached with the idea of running for Smith County sheriff. At first I thought my wife won't be supportive of this, but she was, so I am running.”
Smith said he has traveled worldwide with the ATF, working bombing and fire scenes.
But the church arsons made him realize that he wanted to stay home with his family.
Davis clenched his jaw and Smith sighed when asked if they believed Bourque and McAllister posed a future threat to society if they were released from prison.
“They would have continued to burn churches and be a threat had we not caught them when we did,” Smith said. “Knowing this, I do think one of them, if not both, will continue to be a threat when they get out if they do not get the proper rehabilitation while in prison.”