Suspect with satanic impulses confesses to burning churches

Associated Press/February 28, 1999
By JR Ross

MuncieE, Ind. -- As many as 50 church fires in the Midwest and South over the past five years may have been solved all at once with the arrest of a man fascinated with the satanic.

Paramedics became suspicious of Jay Scott Ballinger, 36, because he waited two days before seeking treatment for severe burns he claimed to have suffered in a bonfire.

A Ball State University police officer, acting on a hunch, questioned him. Finally, last weekend, Ballinger admitted to federal authorities that he burned 30 to 50 churches in 11 states between 1994 and 1998.

So far, agents have connected Ballinger to close to 20 arsons, and he has been charged in seven of them, all involving rural churches in Indiana.

Agents said they aren't certain of a motive, but Ballinger's interest in the occult is clear. Police said a few years ago, he persuaded 50 teen-agers to sign contracts in blood pledging their souls to the devil.

Ballinger's stripper girlfriend and another man have admitted taking part in burning an Indiana church where they painted an upside-down cross on the steps as part of a satanic ritual.

All three suspects are white. Some of the dozens of churches were predominantly white, and others were black. Pat Donovan, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said he is unsure whether any of the fires were under investigation by the government task force established in 1996 after a series of fires at black churches in the South.

In an affidavit this week, Ballinger said he burned churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Alabama and four other states that authorities refused to identify. Some of the churches were destroyed; others sustained less than $5,000 in damage. A firefighter was killed in one blaze in which Ballinger has been implicated.

Ballinger and his two alleged accomplices, Angela Wood, 24, of Atlanta, and Donald A. Puckett, 37, of Lebanon, Ind., first came to authorities' attention in 1997. A suspect in an unrelated case implicated them in a 1994 church fire in Lebanon, but there was not enough evidence to arrest them, Donovan said. The three admitted the crime this month, he said.

On Feb. 9, Sgt. Steve Hiatt of the Ball State police was off-duty, on his way to go shopping for a birthday present for his wife, when he overheard an emergency call from paramedics describing Ballinger's suspicious burns.

Hiatt remembered Ballinger's name from the 1997 investigation, so he immediately stopped by the hospital and questioned Ballinger, who was bandaged with severe burns to his face, chest, legs and hands. Hiatt called ATF agents, who found a gasoline container and satanic books and writings in Ballinger's home.

"It was a matter of luck," Hiatt said. "It really came as a shot out of the dark."

Ballinger remained in federal custody Thursday at an Indianapolis hospital where he is being treated for his burns.

Ms. Wood was in federal custody in Atlanta, where Georgia's fire commissioner, John Oxendine, said Thursday that evidence links her and Ballinger to five recent Georgia church fires, including one that killed a volunteer firefighter.

Puckett was arraigned Thursday and released. His lawyer said Puckett is cooperating with authorities.

Ballinger's lawyer did not return telephone calls.

Ballinger has drifted in and out of the Muncie area, about 40 miles northwest of Indianapolis, since he was a long-haired teen-ager who dropped out of high school in 1978.

Mostly unemployed since he settled back into his parents' rural home in 1990, he had two scrapes with the law before the arson case. In 1994, he was cited for giving minors alcohol. That same year, parents complained he was recruiting teen-agers into a cult.

Daleville Police Sgt. Mark Brewer went to Ballinger's house and 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.

"He was preying basically on these kids and brainwashing them, telling them whatever kids want to hear," Brewer said.

Ballinger was not charged, however, and he successfully sued to get the contracts back, Brewer said.

Among the people eager to know the motive for the fires is the Rev. John W. McKay, who once preached at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in western Indiana. Ballinger is charged with burning the church down.

"There has to be some reason why he would do that," McKay said. "That's something that would be good to know because it might stop similar situations in the future."

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