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Filings shed light on First Baptist Church Montgomery arson; Suspect now faces federal charges

Woman charged in FBC Montgomery arson.
Woman charged in FBC Montgomery arson.((Source: Montgomery County Detention Facility))
Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 9:49 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 8, 2021 at 12:28 PM EDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The U.S. Attorney’s Office has announced federal charges against a woman accused of committing arson at the historic First Baptist Church Montgomery on Sept. 30. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama, Xiaoquin Yan, 27, is charged with violating Title 18 U.S.C. Section 8449(i). She’s accused of setting four fires inside First Baptist Church Montgomery.

Under the Title 18 U.S.C. Section 8449(i), a person is charged if they maliciously damage, destroy or attempt to damage or destroy, using fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce.

New federal court filings also shed more light on the investigation, including details about an interview agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, conducted with Pastor Mark Bethea and other church members.

Documents note that Bethea told agents that he’d interacted with a “small in stature Asian female” after the service on Sept. 26. and told the agents he “ultimately escorted the female from the premises of the church.” Additionally, the pastor noted that several weeks before the fire church security “had previously interacted with an Asian female that was acting suspiciously and obtained the license plate number from the vehicle she was driving.” The security observed “two blue duffel bags with white wiring inside the vehicle,” which the ATF later identified through the plates as being a 2001 Buick LeSabre registered in Yan’s name.

A church member also told ATF agents on Oct. 1 that she’d seen the woman on Sept. 29 entering the church through its courtyard carrying blue duffel bags and silver containers. While the member thought it was “odd,” she assumed the woman was bringing food for the church’s international club.

A church custodian told ATF agents he’d been introduced to the woman on Sept. 15 by a security guard, and they both though she was “acting odd” because she left the church with long hair and returned hours later with short hair before asking to be shown around and asked questions about the church’s cameras. The custodian also stated the woman made a comment about FBC Montgomery’s previous pastors, referring to them as “rich white men.”

AFT agents reviewed the church’s security video and found that a person determined to be a female of Asian descent wearing a hat, mask and gloves was seen carrying the same type of bags as she approached the church around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 29. Worship services were being held inside at the time.

Security video was recording when, around 2 a.m. the following morning, the person returned to the church on South Perry Street and began setting multiple fires inside. After the fires were set, security video recorded the suspect leaving the church with the blue bags.

Bethea and other church staff members indicated to investigators that the person in the security videos appeared to be the same woman who has been escorted off the property on Sept. 26.

Investigators fanned out from the church, canvassing the nearby area and finding surveillance footage that showed a Buick LeSabre leaving the church’s driveway at 2:20 a.m. Other security video from the area showed the vehicle driving away from the church at a high rate of speed, running a red light as it traveled south on Decatur Street.

On Oct. 4, a joint law enforcement operation located Yan at an undisclosed Montgomery residence that was redacted in court documents. While clearing the residence of any people, agents noted that there were two blue duffel bags and a red gas container in plain sit inside a closet, as well as clothing and a hat that matched those seen in the church’s security footage.

A search of the residence, as well as Yan’s vehicle, resulted in agents finding multiple pieces of evidence including masks, clothing, cigarette lighters, gas cans, cell phones, a copy of Yan’s passport and other documents, a 9mm pistol, a firearm magazine loaded with ammunition, additional 9mm rounds, a personal diary, a glove with burn marks, and receipts from Walmart for the purchase of lighters, duffel bags, gas cans and starter logs.

If convicted on the federal charges, Yan faces a prison sentence of between 5-20 years in prison. There is no parole in the federal system.

In addition to the federal charges, Yan faces a second-degree arson charge in Montgomery. On Wednesday, Yan’s bond was increased from $30,000 to $150,000. District Judge Monet Gaines also instructed Yan to “be evaluated and receive treatment, if necessary, for possible mental health concerns while incarcerated.”

Acting United States, Attorney Sandra J. Stewart thanked all of the agencies involved in Yan’a arrest, including the Montgomery Fire/Rescue Bureau of Investigations, the Montgomery Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (A.T.F.), the U.S. Marshals Service Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Auburn Police Department.

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