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Church fire under investigation

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February 12, 2002

Lee County-- A few brick walls are all that remain of St. John the Baptist Church in north Lee County.

Around 8:00 Tuesday night, a member of the congregation spotted flames coming from the 100-year-old church. That person also watched a green truck speed away from the burning building. The fire has not been declared an arson, but no stone is going unturned. If the fire was set intentionally, church members pray the arsonist will be caught.

"I seen the light. I smell some smoke. All them things fell down, and that got burned up." Four-year-old Denzel Hamilton and his father Dennis rushed to see their church, St. John the Baptist, in flames Tuesday night.

It's a scene young Denzel will never forget, "I didn't see nothing like it. I've seen things burned up, some leaves burned up, but not down here."

"I've been a member since I was 12 years old." Now 69, McArthur Deriso can hardly believe his church is gone, "See this church has been here for years. My mother is 87 years old, and she went to school here and they didn't even lock the church, go in there any time of night and pray."

The church doors were locked last night--but, members believe someone broke in and set the fire. Deriso says, "God knows who did it, we don't, but I do know they will pay for it." Investigators from several state and federal agencies, including the ATF, spent most of the day combing for clues in the rubble.

Come Sunday, in this same spot that investigators now search, the congregation plans to gather once again. Deriso says, "I wouldn't go nowhere. I would show the devil he's a liar. I would have service right in here. God is good just right there are anywhere else." While St. John the Baptist Church is no longer standing, the congregation is. Along with ATF agents, arson investigators from the Insurance Commissioner's office are also investigating the fire.

Posted at 5:38 p.m. by melissa.kill@walb.com