It was the largest number of fires charged to one individual during the task force's nearly 3-year-old investigation, said Treasury Undersecretary James Johnson, the task force co-chairman. The task force has opened investigations of 752 church fires, bombings or attempted bombings and has charged 331 individuals in 249 of those attacks.
The defendant, Jay Scott Ballinger, who was arrested last February on a federal complaint charging him with seven southern Indiana church fires, "is a white man charged with setting fire to predominantly white churches," Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee, task force co-chairman, said at a news conference at the Justice Department.
Ballinger has admitted to federal agents that he burned 30 to 50 churches in 11 states between 1994 and 1998, according to an affidavit by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Scott D. McCart. In that February document, McCart said satanic materials were found in Ballinger's Yorktown, Ind., home. Ballinger traveled with his girlfriend, Angela Wood, 24, of Atlanta, as she worked as a stripper in several states.
Wood and another man, Donald A. Puckett, 37, of Lebanon, Ind., have told federal agents they took part with Ballinger in burning an Indiana church where they painted an upside-down cross on the steps as part of a satanic ritual, McCart's affidavit said.
A federal grand jury in Indianapolis returned 12 counts charging Ballinger with the seven Indiana fires. A separate federal grand jury in Atlanta returned six counts charging him with three 1998 fires in northern Georgia.
In one of those, at New Salem United Methodist Church in Commerce, Ga., volunteer firefighter Loy Williams, 27, died, and three firefighters were injured.
Because of that death, Ballinger could face the death penalty if he is convicted and Attorney General Janet Reno authorizes seeking that penalty. Otherwise, the Georgia fires carry a minimum penalty of 50 years in prison.
The Indiana fires carry a total minimum penalty of 90 years in prison and a maximum of 210 years. Ballinger also faces a top fine of $3,000,000.
He is in custody at a federal medical facility in Minnesota, Lee said.
Wood and Puckett were not indicted Tuesday, Lee said. They were charged in the same criminal complaint brought in February against Ballinger with assisting him in the 1994 arson of the Concord Church of Christ in Boone County, Ind.
Last week, Puckett filed a petition to enter a plea of guilty to that charge. Lee said Puckett and Wood "have not been cleared" and the investigation of fires set by Ballinger continues. "Someone who sets fire to a house of worship is not just attacking a building, they are attacking a community," Lee said, adding that the task force would continue operations "as long as needed."
The task force has maintained a 34 percent arrest rate in the fires it has investigated, which Johnson said is "more than double the nationwide arson arrest rate of 16 percent."
Ballinger has been in federal custody since his arrest after suffering burns from a church fire he allegedly set in Ohio. Off-duty Ball State, Ind., Police Sgt. Steve Hiatt said he overheard paramedics describing Ballinger's suspicious burns and remembered Ballinger's name from a 1997 church fire investigation. He stopped by the hospital and questioned Ballinger, who was bandaged with severe burns to his face, chest, legs and hands.
Ballinger has been mostly unemployed since he settled back into his parents' rural home in 1990.
In 1994, parents complained he was recruiting teen-agers into a cult. At Ballinger's home, Daleville Police Sgt. Mark Brewer confiscated about 50 contracts signed in blood by teen-agers who agreed to give their souls to the devil and do "all types of evil" in exchange for wealth, power and sex.
Ballinger was not charged and successfully sued to get the contracts back, Brewer said.