Three Burleson men who belong to a "radical Christian activist group" were in the Johnson County Jail on Friday night after a church deacon caught two of them attempting to ignite an explosive device on Independence Day at a church under construction in north Burleson, authorities said Friday.
Dayton Lee Calaway, 19, and Michael Philip Plaisted Jr., 18, were arrested Wednesday night near the Victory Family Church after they got bogged down in mud as a fleet-footed deacon chased them from the church in the 400 block of Northwest John Jones Drive, police said.
Two other people drove away, the deacon told officers.
An explosive device in a glass container was found propped against the church door. The suspects apparently tried to detonate the device twice before being interrupted by the deacon, police and Burleson Fire Marshal Stacy Singleton said.
As authorities were investigating at the church, they were notified of a fire on undeveloped land behind a north Burleson residential subdivision. A nearby resident reported seeing a vehicle drive away.
On Thursday, Jered Michael Ragon, 18, voluntarily went to the police station for questioning after Calaway and Plaisted implicated him, police Detective T. Catron said. Police called a MedStar ambulance because Ragon's feet were burned, and a emergency medical crew treated him at the station.
Ragon had gotten gasoline on his feet as he tried to destroy evidence from the church fire in the field, and his feet were burned, Catron said.
Calaway, Plaisted and Ragon face charges of arson at a place of worship, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, Singleton said.
They remained in the Johnson County Jail in Cleburne on Friday night with bail set at $30,000 each. Ragon also faces a charge of tampering with evidence; bail was set at $5,000.
The glass container from the church and evidence found in the field have been sent to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lab for analysis, Singleton said. The ATF and the U.S. attorney's office are reviewing the case to determine whether federal charges will be filed, he said.
Search warrants served Thursday night and Friday morning at Ragon's and Plaisted's homes uncovered evidence that was also sent to the ATF lab, police said.
Cmdr. Chris Havens, the Police Department spokesman, said the suspects boasted about belonging to a leaderless group of 10 or 15 who share a belief that society has become too focused on self-improvement and self-gratification and has lost focus on the glorification of God.
"They admit to being Christian and being brought up Christian, but they believe there should be one denomination and one church, not multiple denominations," Havens said.
"They did not say they had a name for their group, other than they were a radical Christian activist group. That was the way they explained their group," he said.
The suspects said the group has three levels of involvement: Bible study, consensual fighting and destructive acts. Because one of their beliefs is free thought, however, participation in all three levels is not mandatory, they told police.
The three admitted to being in a core group of seven that created the explosive weapon as a test to draw attention to the demise of society and to see whether the device would work, Havens said.
"They believe that the past generations have accumulated trash and are responsible for making younger generations clean up their mess," he said. "They're trying to make a statement and get society's attention regarding that."
That's why two of the men said they were involved in an earlier fire in a recycling bin at Centre Point Church on Alsbury Road, Singleton said. That fire burned the materials in the bin but did not damage the church, he said.
None of the men has a criminal record, he said.
A fourth suspect, a juvenile, was not arrested because the others said he was not involved, Havens said.
Authorities are trying to learn the identities of the others in the core group, he said.
"We put them in the category of a domestic terrorist group," Havens said. "We hope to discover the names of other individuals involved and if other devices have been prepared along with any plans they may be talking about to further their cause."
Burleson police have no evidence to link the group to an arson fire and vandalism two weeks ago at the Bethesda Baptist Church of Saginaw, Singleton said.
"We don't have anything that leads us to believe they've been anywhere else right now," he said.