When arsonists recently set fire to five Baptist churches in rural Bibb County, Al., it was up to James Cavanaugh, 53, the regional boss for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, to respond quickly, says U.S. News & World Report. The magazine says “this low-key cop has been at the forefront of some of the biggest criminal investigations and hostage negotiations of the past two decades.” They include Waco, the Unabomber, the mid-1990s church fires in the South, the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park bombing, and the Washington, D.C.-area sniper investigation. Cavanaugh’s work has been crucial to solving or resolving all those high-profile crimes. Observers predict that Cavanaugh, an accomplished arson investigator, will have the same success with the church fires–10 so far–down in Alabama.
Cavanaugh says it will be challenging to win the trust of black pastors and congregants who still remember a time when police were often Klansmen. “Old wounds open,” says Cavanaugh. But his former ATF colleague, James Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police, says if anyone can win trust, it’s Cavanaugh. “The political ramifications of those cases makes them extraordinarily sensitive,”says Pasco. “It takes tremendous diplomacy and extraordinary people skills to keep them going.” Pasco says Cavanaugh has those in abundance, along with a disarming sense of humor and dogged tenacity.