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3 plead guilty in church fires

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Three former college students pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal arson charges in the burning of nine rural Alabama churches, a series of sanctuary torchings that alarmed congregations in isolated country sites around the state.

Matthew Cloyd, Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee Debusk entered the guilty pleas to federal arson and conspiracy charges in the string of church fires set on two nights in February.

The three wore orange jail jump suits and leg chains as they stood before U.S. District Judge David Proctor, who told them they all face minimum federal sentences of seven years because two firefighters were injured in one of the blazes.

Cloyd and Moseley had a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that called for them to recommend a sentence range of up to eight years and one month, but not less than seven years. The plea agreement also calls for restitution and five years of supervision after prison. Debusk did not have an agreement on a sentence with his plea, but a prosecutor said he expects Debusk to get a shorter sentence than the other two because he participated in only five fires.

Defense attorney Brett Bloomston said Debusk decided to plead guilty "to help those congregations and others hurt by his behavior continue to heal."

Defense lawyer Tommy Spina said Cloyd "is incredibly remorseful and he regrets creating this much misery in people's lives."

The three are also charged with state crimes in Bibb, Pickens, Greene and Sumter counties, including arson, burglary, criminal mischief and cruelty to animals for killing a cow.

Defense attorneys have been discussing a similar plea deal with county prosecutors, but none has been reached. County prosecutors insist that any plea deal include state prison time for the three after they finish their federal sentences.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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