20 years unsolved: Inner City Church arson case

An unsolved arson case marks 20 years Friday.

(KNOXVILLE) An unsolved arson case marks 20 years Friday.

It was bitterly cold the night Inner City Church's sanctuary burned to the ground on Jan. 8, 1996.

Charlie Hansard was the assistant fire chief in charge of this fire.

"We were able to save the back part of the building, but the sanctuary was gone when we got there," he recalled in an interview with WBIR 10News 20 years later.

Loading ...

Investigators found unexploded Molotov cocktails and kerosene covering the floor in an adjacent building that did not burn.

They also found racial slurs written on the church's doors.

Dewey Roberts was the local NAACP president at the time and told 10News in a 1996 interview, "we are very concerned about it, and we feel that once the person is caught and prosecuted, it will deter other people from trying to do this type of dastardly deed."

But nobody was ever prosecuted for setting the church on fire.

That's something that doesn't sit well with Hansard.

"It bothers me that they did not solve it because I think there was too much evidence on the scene," he said.

The unexploded flammable materials found inside the unburned building made Hansard think the crime was committed by an amateur, who didn't know air flow would be essential to igniting those materials.

Also, he said, the sheer amount of kerosene used and untouched explosives suggested someone or some people spent between 30 and 60 minutes in the building. He said that's longer than someone worried about getting caught would spend at the scene of a crime.

"There were things at the scene that pointed to it more or less being somebody familiar with the church," Hansard said.

David Upton was the lead pastor. His brother Jerry Upton oversaw the overall operations at Inner City, which included not only the church but also a bank, meant to help the local community.

It was established with a $1 million donation from then Green Bay Packers star Reggie White, an associate pastor at the church and former University of Tennessee football player.

Loading ...

"Until whites and blacks start working together and stop fighting against each other, we're going to continue to have these problems," White told reporters during a media conference, addressing the apparently racially motivated arson.

With White's fame, support for the church came rolling in from all over the country, as the Uptons promised to rebuild.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Knoxville and donated building supplies to Inner City Church for the rebuild.

Those materials, however, were later sold to a neighbor.

The church was never rebuilt.

Where it stood at 3536 Skyline Drive in East Knoxville is now home to a couple of houses and an open field.

"They obviously had no intention of rebuilding the church," Hansard said.

Suspicion grew that the arson was an inside job, as donations and expenditures didn't add up.

"It has not been the first time that a black leader has been challenged and tried through the media," said Jerry Upton, defending himself in a 1998 interview with 10News.

Grant McGarity was a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who investigated the arson.

Reached by phone Thursday, McGarity said, "It was a difficult investigation. We brought a lot of people in. No one ever got prosecuted, but it was a big loss for the community."

Hansard said investigators only consulted him one time, in a brief phone call, which has always left him wondering.

"I'm the guy that knows more about that fire than anybody because I was there from start to finish," he said.


David Upton died about a year ago.

RELATED: Knoxville pastor David Upton dies

White died in 2004.

Jerry Upton was convicted in 2000 of drug and firearm-related charges and served time behind bars.

A Facebook page for Honey Rock Victorious Church in East Knoxville shows Upton is now an active member and leader there, as was David Upton until he died.

Messages left for Jerry Upton Thursday were not immediately returned.

Loading ...