The City of Greenville was the center of nationwide media attention 25 years ago, following two arson fires at local churches.
A fire was reported at the New Light House of Prayer late on the night of June 9, 1996, followed by a fire early the next morning at the Church of the Living God.
The blazes occurred on the same weekend as some 30 pastors met with then-Attorney General Janet Reno about a string of suspicious fires at predominantly black churches across the south, which prompted the creation of the federal Church Arson Task Force.
Dozens of television, radio, newspaper and magazine affiliates from across the United States descended on Greenville on the morning of June 10, 1996, as the Greenville Police Department, Greenville Fire Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other agencies investigated the incidents. A church service was conducted that evening, even as another fire destroyed a residence in the 3300 block of Sayle Street.
The police and fire departments conducted twice-daily press conferences in the former Public Safety Building at 1702 Wesley Street, while local residents often found themselves the subjects of interviews.
Five suspicious fires had been reported in Greenville by the night of June 11, 1996 when a spectacular blaze engulfed the former Trailways Bus Depot/Greenville Hotel at the corner of Lee and Wright Streets.
The following weeks included visits by the New Black Panther Party and two factions of the Ku Klux Klan, an appearance by then-Governor George W. Bush, and more than forty additional suspicious fires at homes in Greenville.
Both churches were rebuilt, thanks to the efforts of an army of volunteers and significant contributions from both local agencies and from individuals across the country.
Mark Anthony Young of Greenville was taken into custody concerning the church incidents and in March 1997, Young pleaded guilty to a federal charge of arson in connection with the New Light House of Prayer fire. As part of a plea agreement, U.S. Judge Sidney Fitzwater sentenced Young to the eight months he had already served in federal custody and a separate federal charge, alleging Young set the arson fire at the New Light House of Prayer, was dismissed, as was a pending state level arson charge concerning a set fire at the Sayle Street residence.
Young was reported to have an IQ of 53, although he was found to be mentally competent to stand trial prior to the plea hearing.
As part of the plea agreement, Young was placed on three years of supervised release, during which he was ordered to commit no further crimes.
But Young was found responsible for a string of offenses and in May 2014 was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being convicted of his fifth armed robbery and his 10 felony overall.