Sunday, January 18, 2009

Racial motive alleged in post-election arson at Springfield church


January 16, 2009 02:47 PM

By Jonathan Saltzman and Brian Ballou, Globe Staff

SPRINGFIELD -- Three Springfield men, including one who allegedly complained that blacks and Puerto Ricans would have more rights than whites under President Barack Obama, set an arson fire that destroyed the construction site of a mostly black church just hours after Obama's landmark victory, authorities said today.

(Photo by Dennis Leger/ Springfield Fire Department)
Springfield firefighters battled the blaze at the building site of the Macedonia Church of God in November.
The men, Benjamin Haskell, Michael F. Jacques Jr., and Thomas Gleason Jr., all of whom are white, poured gasoline on the exterior and interior of the construction site of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in the early morning of Nov. 5 and later boasted about it, according to prosecutors.

Four days after the fire, which many in Springfield's black community had immediately feared was related to the election of America's black president, Haskell and Jacques drove by burnt rubble with an unidentified associate and laughed, according to the affidavit of an FBI agent.

``We did it,'' Haskell allegedly told to the associate, who later became a cooperating witness. When the associate asked why they set the blaze, Haskell replied, ``Because it was a black church.''

Jacques asked the associate whom he had voted for, the affidavit said. When he replied that he voted for Obama, Jacques uttered a profanity-laced racial epithet and predicted that Obama would be assassinated.

Haskell later admitted to authorities that he helped set the fire and said Jacques had been angry the day before Election Day that the country was going to have an African-American president and that blacks and Puerto Ricans would have more rights than whites, according to the affidavit.

Haskell, 22, Jacques, 24, and Gleason, 21, were arrested early today and charged with a violation of Section 241, a civil rights conspiracy statute, said a spokeswoman for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan. The charge makes it illegal for two or more individuals to agree to ``injure, threaten, or intimidate'' anyone from exercising their civil rights.

Each faces up to 10 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. They appeared briefly in US District Court in Springfield before US Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman this afternoon.

``I've been hopeful from day one that whoever perpetrated this hideous act of arson ... would be apprehended,'' said Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., pastor of Macedonia Church of God in Christ, which was building a new church.

The blaze started at 3:10 a.m. and caused an estimated $2 million in damage. Investigators said at the time that the timing, just hours after Obama broke the highest racial barrier in politics, raised suspicions that it was a hate crime.

The fire touched off a raw fear that has lurked just below the surface in many black communities, that Obama's breakthrough success would trigger a backlash against blacks.

``If, in fact, it's a racially motivated crime, then that would be an additional tragedy to the loss because that's really not something you want to have in a community,'' said Bradford R. Martin Jr., a lawyer who represents the church and praised the work of investigators.

``As African-Americans, the Macedonia Church would have a heightened feeling and sensitivity to that,'' added Martin, who is white. ``Until we hear more about what was actually going on with these individuals, it will be hard to say what their motivation was.''

The state fire marshal, Stephen Coan, said authorities from a host of federal and state agencies investigated the crime, including the State Police, FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Hampden County District Attorney's Office, as well as the marshal's office. Sullivan's office led the investigation.

Bill Blatch, a retired state police lieutenant and president of Black Men of Greater Springfield, was pleased that arrests had been made.

``Being an ex-trooper, I had confidence that the investigators would do the best job they could to try to bring this thing to a quick end,�� he said. ``And I think that faith has been rewarded.��

He said he was heartened to see blacks and whites in Springfield pull together in the wake of the fire.

``As President-elect Obama states, we can do this thing, but we can only do this thing together,�� he said.

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