MULBERRY — It wasn't a jihadist or suicide bomber who stopped the Rev. Terry Jones from torching nearly 3,000 Qurans on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was the long arm of the law.
Jones had planned to burn 2,998 copies of the Muslim holy book – one for each victim of the Sept. 11 attacks -- in Loyce E. Harpe Park, just north of Mulberry at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Supporters gathered, but Jones never arrived.
That's because at 4:58 p.m., the 61-year-old pastor was pulled over by sheriff's deputies a couple of miles away. He was a passenger in a pickup truck driven by Marvin Wayne Sapp, 44, an associate pastor in Jones' Dove World Outreach Center.
The truck towed a large, smoker-style grill that Jones was going to use as an incinerator. In the smoker were the condemned Qurans.
Some of the books were soaked in kerosene, said Fran Ingram, spokeswoman for the church. The Polk County Sheriff's Office arrested Jones on felony charges of unlawful conveyance of fuel and open display of a firearm.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said deputies saw Jones at a McDonalds in Mulberry and watched as he doused the books with kerosene on his way to the park.
“He was told that if he was going to come to Polk County and violate the law, he would be going to jail,” the sheriff said at a news conference Wednesday night.
The sheriff said dumping kerosene onto the books presented a hazardous situation. “He was potentially driving a bomb around if he had gotten into a crash.”
Judd said Sapp was charged with several civil traffic violations, including towing a trailer with no lights, safety chain or tag.
Deputies seized the 1998 Chevrolet pickup, the smoker and the Qurans, Judd said. All will be held in evidence until the case is resolved. He said he was unsure what would happen to the holy books then.
If they were destroyed by the kerosene, Judd said, deputies would consult with local Muslim imams to see how to properly dispose of them.
Some supporters cried foul.
“I think it was a set-up,” said Lakeland resident Bill Berry, who came to the park to support Jones. “That's bull. Whether you agree with the man or not, he has the right to protest.”
A couple dozen people, mostly in support of the fiery protest, had shown up at the park. Some, like Berry, later drove to the spot where Jones was taken into custody, in front of the Mulberry Pharmacy.
Normally, a backer of Judd, who has a reputation as a strict law-and-order sheriff, Berry said: “He made the wrong call on this. You have to let Americans do what they want to protest things.”
Jones, whose 15-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville enraged Muslims around the globe in 2010 when he announced he would burn a copy of the Islamic holy book, had planned this year to make a big splash, torching 2,998 Qurans in the county park.
As soon as he announced the event, problems began to arise.
To stage such an event, he needed a permit from the county, but he never applied for one.
“We have tried to file for permits,” Jones said in an interview last week, “but we feel that a permit is just an excuse to turn us down.”
County officials vowed that the public spectacle in their park would not take place, not because of the nature of the event, but because Jones lacked the required permit. Mianne Nelson, spokeswoman for the Polk County Commission, said last week that Jones never notified anyone in county government of his plans to use county property.
Jones remained focused on carrying through with the event, even after Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of the U.S. Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, called Jones this week and asked him to cancel the book burning.
Austin told the preacher he was concerned such an event would be disrespectful to Muslims and put innocent civilians and U.S. military service men and women at risk.
Jones would not relent, saying he expected as many as 200 people to show up to the Quran-burning, including protesters.
He never got there Wednesday afternoon.
As soon as Jones got to downtown Mulberry, the pickup he was in was pulled over, said Ingram, who was following Jones in another vehicle.
“They were respectful of Dr. Jones,” she said, “but they put handcuffs on him.”
She believes the plan was to never allow Jones to reach the park.
“Of course,” she said. “I don't think the U.S. government wanted us to burn Qurans. They were looking for a reason to arrest him.”
Jones first Quran burning three years ago drew the attention of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who along with military leaders urged Jones not to go through with the stunt, saying it would endanger U.S. troops in Afghanistan and across the Middle East.
Jones ended up only setting one Quran on fire that time. Since then, he has held mock trials with the Quran and the Muslim prophet Muhammad as defendants and found them guilty of various crimes.