By Schuyler Dixon Associated Press
TYLER, Texas — Even as authorities closed in, one of the two suspects in a string of east Texas church fires attended a Sunday service and went to a Baptist ministry on his junior college campus for a free meal.
Such activity wasn’t unusual for 19-year-old Jason Robert Bourque, a former Eagle Scout and high school debate champion who grew up in a small church not far from 10 others that authorities believe have been set ablaze since Jan. 1.
But officials say they found weapons and books detailing atheism and devil worship during a pre-dawn raid at a home where Bourque was arrested Feb. 21. In a separate raid in San Antonio, authorities captured Daniel George McAllister, Bourque’s childhood friend from First Baptist Church in tiny Ben Wheeler.
Bourque and McAllister, 22, each face one count of felony arson for a fire at Dover Baptist Church near Tyler, about 90 miles east of Dallas. They are suspects in nine other church fires that were ruled arsons and three attempted church break-ins, according to court documents.
Both men are being held on $10 million bond. They could face life in prison if convicted.
Investigators say the motive for the fiery crime spree remains a mystery.
The young men’s former pastor described Bourque as an outgoing, inquisitive child who asked pointed questions about the Bible and was a whiz at memorizing passages. The Rev. Carlton Young recalled McAllister as a quiet and shy boy, nurtured by a mother who worked in the church nursery and home-schooled her son before she died several years ago.
“As a church and even the people in the community are just in grief,” Young said. “There’s a lot of sorrow and concern for the 10 churches that have been burned. Then you put a face on it.”
Young said he mostly lost touch with Bourque when the young man’s family moved about five years ago and rarely saw McAllister after his mother’s death.
About seven years ago, the boys sneaked into the church in the middle of the night, said Young, who lives next to the church and only knew about the incident because his wife saw the boys leave.
The pastor said the boys had rigged an emergency door earlier so it would open from the outside. He said nothing was stolen or vandalized, and he never reported the incident to authorities. He said he sees no connection between the fires and the incident, which he characterized as youthful mischief.
“It was two little junior high kids, you know, out doing their thing they shouldn’t be doing,” Young said.
Bourque was under surveillance when he showed up for a free meal at Tyler Junior College’s Baptist Student Ministry four days before his arrest, ministry director Mark Jones said. The director said Bourque had been attending the weekly dinners at least a few months, but he didn’t know much about him.
“I think it was a shock for my core students,” Jones said. “Here’s this guy who walked among us that we interacted with that we had no idea of the darkness there or the struggle or the hurt.”
Jones said Bourque was sometimes joined by McAllister, whose father told reporters his son had struggled to find a job in the past year but was upbeat after moving to San Antonio to join a girlfriend he planned to marry.
An arrest affidavit indicates that a family member took McAllister to the bus station for his trip to San Antonio two days after the fire the men are charged with setting.
Young said McAllister was traumatized by his mother’s death.
“She was sort of the anchor in Daniel’s life, and he lost that,” the pastor said.
Family members of Bourque and McAllister declined to comment to The Associated Press. Attorneys for the men aren’t commenting, citing a judge’s gag order.
According to court records, authorities first contacted Bourque on Feb. 11 at his grandparents’ upscale home in Lindale, the site of one of the fires. He was arrested 10 days later at his girlfriend’s mobile home in a rural area about 15 miles away.
During the intervening surveillance, authorities say, they observed Bourque entering a store bathroom a day before someone reported a carving on a bathroom stall that said “Little Hope was Arson,” with an upside-down cross in flames under the wording.
It was an apparent reference to the first arson attack, which occurred Jan. 1 near Athens, about 40 miles southwest of Tyler. Authorities had listed the cause of that fire as undetermined until after the arrests.
On his Facebook page, Bourque joined a bonfire fan group that included hundreds of images of people watching bonfires. His social networking shows a cerebral side as well, quoting philosophers on his MySpace page.
At Van High School, he was a state debate champion.
A woman who knew Bourque in high school said his life apparently deteriorated the past two years. Whitney Faber said Bourque told her he had been kicked out of the University of Texas at Tyler last year, but he didn’t elaborate. She said Bourque seemed “very, very depressed” when she talked to him, the last of those conversations occurring several months ago.
Young, the pastor, said acquaintances told him in recent days they didn’t see that side of Bourque.
“They would see Jason in passing — ‘Hi. How are you? What’s going on?’” Young said. “Never thinking about anything like this going on.”