Fire marshal’s dog confirms arson in Macon church fire

lfabian@macon.comJanuary 29, 2013 

Fire investigators concluded that someone torched south Macon’s Reaching Souls Cathedral of Praise Apostolic Church on Bethesda Avenue early Monday.

Cotton, an accelerant detection canine from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, walked through the rubble Tuesday morning and alerted his handler.

Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been working with the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner’s Office and the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department to determine the cause of the blaze that tore through the sanctuary building.

The investigators suspected arson Monday and brought the canine in to be sure.

“The dog did basically confirm our findings and we will rule it as arson,” said Morgan Fisher, the resident agent in charge of the ATF’s Macon office.

A news conference is set for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the fire department headquarters, Fisher said.

Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens’ office also confirmed arson in a Tuesday news release.

The marshal’s dog is trained to detect hydrocarbons in up to 30 different kinds of ignitable liquids, said Bruce Gourley, Cotton’s handler.

Samples can be sent to a lab for confirmation of the chemicals, which could occur naturally in substances such as carpet glue, he said.

“When he alerts, then we have to eliminate whether it’s supposed to be there or not,” Gourley said.

Investigators met at the site at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and put up posters requesting information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person responsible for arson.

Early Monday, flames tore through the roof of the main building and its brick walls buckled in the intense heat.

The fire spread to an adjoining social hall and damaged the rear of that building.

Investigators combed through debris for much of the day Monday and firefighters guarded the scene until all the evidence could be collected.

They released the property at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The congregation’s pastor, Onslow Ross, is serving a federal sentence on 54 counts of various financial crimes involving the misuse of a $389,000 insurance check.

In May 2005, the former main sanctuary building’s roof collapsed and the frame for a new building went up.

In U.S. District Court in Macon in June 2008, Ross was sentenced to 130 months in prison for forging a CB&T Bank signature, depositing the check into a new Security Bank account and writing cashier’s checks to businesses and members of Ross’ family.

A woman who answered the church’s phone Monday said she could not comment on the fire and hung up.

The Telegraph left a phone message Tuesday morning seeking comment about the congregation’s plans, but the call was not immediately returned.

Anyone with information about the fire is urged to call the Arson Hotline at (800) 282-5804.

Callers can remain anonymous and rewards up to $10,000 are given for information leading to the arrest and conviction of an arsonist.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303

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