From 1998 to 1999, Jay Scott Ballinger and his co-conspirators, Angela Wood and Donald Puckett, burned approximately 50 churches throughout the rural Midwest and Southeast. These acts were part of a satanic cult ritual. One Georgia fire resulted in the death of a firefighter.
ATF investigated the church fires alongside other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Evidence at one scene indicated that the arsonist injured himself. When questioned about burns on his body, Ballinger lied, arousing further suspicion. Federal search warrants uncovered incriminating evidence. Ballinger subsequently confessed to 50 fires.
The Arrest and Adjudication
ATF and Indiana authorities arrested Ballinger, Wood, and Puckett on federal arson charges. Ballinger pled guilty to 29 crimes in eight states, and received 42 years imprisonment and a #3.5 million fine. Wood and Puckett also pled guilty and received 200 months and 27 months imprisonment respectively.
Ballinger was tried separately for the Georgia fire. He entered a negotiated plea and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. His appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful.
Captain Kennon Loy Williams, a volunteer with the Banks County Fire Department, Homer, Georgia, died while fighting a fire at the New Salem United Methodist church on December 31, 1998.
The Crime and Investigation
Brothers Benjamin and James Williams, who openly declared themselves as anti-Semitic, anti-gay white supremacists, went on a murderous spree in the summer of 1999. They murdered two gay men and burned three Sacramento, California area synagogues and a medical building housing a women’s clinic. The damage totaled $3 million.
ATF was part of an investigative task force that included the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, Police and Fire Departments and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Evidence recovered from the fire scenes pointed to the Williams brothers. In addition, Shasta County, California, investigators arrested the brothers on suspicion of murder after tracing a victim’s stole credit cards to them. While the suspects were in custody, ATF obtained incriminating evidence relating to the fires and murders. Forensic evidence developed by the ATF National Laboratory Center, along with other federal and state labs sealed the Williams’ fate.
Benjamin and James Williams were indicted on the federal charges of arson, conspiracy and destruction of religious property. Benjamin, the duo’s leader, confessed to the murders and arsons. He hoped his eventual execution would make him a “Christian martyr” and inspire others to hate minorities.
Benjamin Williams pled guilty to the arsons in 2001, receiving a 30-year sentence. He committed suicide while awaiting trial on the murders. James Williams also pled guilty and received a sentence of 19 to 21 years and a $ 1 million fine.