The Greenville Police Department confirmed Wednesday that authorities have arrested the man they believe is responsible for burning down the Hopewell Baptist Church in Greenville.
Andrew McClinton, 45, of Leland was charged with one count of first-degree arson. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation had originally said they would investigate the fire as a hate crime. But the arrest of McClinton, who is African American and had been a member of the church, muddies this storyline.
“We’re still trying to investigate a motive as to why this person did this, so we’re not ruling out anything,” said Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and officers from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department apprehended McClinton on Wednesday afternoon at his house in Leland, a small town just outside of Greenville.
“We’d developed him as a person of interest from the beginning,” Wilson said.
On Nov. 2, the day after the fire, Wilson had said investigators were looking at someone, but offered no other details. That person turned out to be McClinton.
Wilson declined to comment on what led them to McClinton, citing the ongoing investigation, but said that he is currently the sole suspect.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons was quick to condemn the act.
“This was a divisive act,” Simmons said. “There is not place for this heinous and divisive behavior in this community, and we are excited to move forward with the healing process in the city.”
The Nov. 1 fire at Hopewell, a traditionally African American church, grabbed national headlines and accusations of racism after the Greenville Fire Department discovered the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted along the building’s side.
Although spray-painting a candidate’s name rarely invites accusations of hate speech, several white supremacist organizations have expressed support for Donald Trump. And in the wake of his election, reports of racist acts done in the president-elect’s name have surfaced across the country.
“It has that connotation,” Simmons said in November. “Yes, the atmosphere around the country has enabled folks to come out of their closets, you could say, and do these cowardly acts.”
But many Greenville residents told Mississippi Today at the time that they had a hard time imagining such a blatantly racist act occurring in a town that Simmons also called “unique in its history with regards to race relations.”
“We don’t have a race problem here in the city of Greenville. Maybe we’re being infiltrated with crime from somewhere else. I wouldn’t think we’d have people here, black or white, who’d engage with this,” said the Rev. Theautry Winters in November. “We have good people in Greenville.”
Still others said they believed the fire was accidental, and the message was a cover for a different kind of crime. Polly Powell, who lives next door to the church, said she waited to call in the fire after hearing the alarm, assuming it was a break-in. Break-ins are a common occurrence at the church, she said.
“I think it was put there to throw them off the scent of the real trail,” Powell said the day after the fire. “I just don’t think it has nothing to do with Trump.”
Although initial testing at the scene had led investigators to believe someone had started the fire with an accelerant, results from the state crime lab ruled that out in mid-November, officials told Mississippi Today at the time.
But Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown said investigators had no reason to assume the fire was an accident.
“Fire can be (started) intentionally without a flammable substance like fuel or lighter (fluids),” Brown said in an email the week after the fire.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Gov. Phil Bryant applauded the apprehension of the suspect in the case: “I appreciate the hard work, professionalism and diligence of the Greenville police and fire departments, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the ATF in solving this heinous crime against people of faith.”
Wilson echoed the governor’s praise.
“I’ve been in law enforcement a long time and despite it being a terrible crime it was great seeing agencies working so well together,” Wilson said. “I know the collaborative effort is what helped everyone solve this case.”
A GoFundMe online fundraising campaign resulted in donations for church repairs totaling $257,467 within a week of the fire. That sum came from more than 7,000 individual donations from every state and the District of Columbia and 29 countries, according to Katherine Cichy, a GoFundMe spokeswoman.