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Arson Case Briefs

provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
for more information on this Brief, contact:
ATF, Arson and Explosive Programs Division - (202) 927-7930

Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church
Charlotte, NC
June 6, 1996

A. IN: 13516-96-0024 A

B. CASE AGENT: J.C. Modzelewski

C. FIELD DIVISION/OFFICE: Charlotte/Charlotte II

D. PHONE: 704-344-6119


Reed Chisholm
Assistant District Attorney
Mecklenburg County
Charlotte, North Carolina


On June 6, 1996, at approximately 10:50 p.m., a fire was reported at the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church at 6917 Old Providence Road, Charlotte, North Carolina. The church was a total loss, with damages estimated at approximately $200,000. ATF responded to the scene with a National Response Team truck. The scene search and subsequent investigation were conducted by the Violent Crimes Task Force, the Charlotte Fire Department, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. The congregation at this church, which was located in an affluent section of southeast Charlotte, was predominately African-American. The church was constantly receiving generous offers from developers who wished to purchase the property. Because the structure was being renovated, there were no utilities servicing the building. CFIs from ATF and the Charlotte Fire Department determined that the fire was incendiary with a point of origin at the rear portion of the church. An ATF-trained accelerant detection canine was dispatched to the scene but was unable to detect remaining accelerants. ATF retained the physical evidence found at the scene.


North Carolina General Statutes

Section 14-62, Burning of a Church
Section 14-49, Malicious Use of an Incendiary Material


1. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer was on routine patrol the night after the fire when he happened upon two juveniles with BB-guns. During the subsequent interview, they stated that a juvenile female in their middle school said she was going to burn a church.

2. The girl was identified. Friends who were interviewed all said that the suspect admitted to them that she had burned the church.

3. The suspect was interviewed, in the presence of her parents, and admitted to burning the church. During a search of her bedroom, investigators found the clothes she wore on the night of the fire and the can of "Zippo" lighter fluid and the lighter she used to initiate the fire. Press clippings regarding the fire were found between her mattress and box spring.

4. Receipts were gathered from a local drug store that documented her purchase of the lighter fluid.


Since no one could place the suspect at the scene, and because no evidence of accelerant was found at the scene, this case hinged on the statements of juveniles. This required the approval of their parents or guardians before they could testify in a criminal matter. In State court, where this case was adjudicated, a juvenile witness cannot be forced to testify. This presented potential problems, but they were ultimately avoided because the suspect pled guilty to the State arson charges.


On July 1, 1996, the juvenile pled guilty in Mecklenburg County Family Court (Juvenile Division), Charlotte, North Carolina, to one felony count of violating North Carolina General Statute 14-62, "Burning of a Church." On October 8, 1996, she was sentenced to 12 months of juvenile probation plus 200 hours of community service.

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