Guilty plea in Springfield church fire
Racial hatred cited as motive
A 23-year-old Springfield man pleaded guilty yesterday to torching a predominantly black church in November 2008, a crime that prosecutors said was motivated by racial hatred over Barack Obama’s election hours earlier.
Benjamin Haskell pleaded guilty in US District Court in Springfield to two federal charges stemming from the fire, which was set early in the morning of Nov. 5, 2008.
He faces at least nine years in prison for conspiring to deny the civil rights of members of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ and for burning the Springfield church, which was under construction and nearly three-fourths finished.
Investigators said Haskell was among three men who broke into the church through a window the morning after Obama’s victory, poured gasoline inside and outside, and ignited it. The fire destroyed nearly the entire structure.
“Today’s conviction should send a strong message that hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted in Massachusetts,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement.
Prosecutors said Haskell and two coconspirators — Thomas Gleason Jr., 22, and Michael Jacques, 25, both of Springfield — had used racial slurs against African-Americans and vented anger over the possibility that Obama could become the first black president.
After Obama’s victory, they decided to retaliate by targeting the church, which has about 300 members, prosecutors said. They walked through the woods behind Gleason’s house to the back of the church late on Nov. 4, 2008, first to inspect the building.
The fire started at 3:10 a.m., caused an estimated $2 million in damage, and sent two firefighters to local hospitals for treatment of injuries. Investigators said immediately afterward that the timing of the fire, just hours after Obama broke the highest racial barrier in politics, made it a likely hate crime.
Four days after the fire, Haskell and Jacques drove to the charred rubble with an unidentified associate and laughed, according to the affidavit of an FBI agent.
“We did it,’’ Haskell allegedly told the associate, who later cooperated with investigators. When the associate asked why the men set the fire, the affidavit said, 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 had voted for Obama, Jacques allegedly uttered a racial epithet and predicted Obama would be assassinated.
Haskell and Jacques later devised a plan to hide their involvement in the fire and to blame it on two youths from Wilbraham, said prosecutors. But Haskell confessed to law enforcement authorities on Jan. 14 last year.
As part of a plea agreement, Haskell faces at least nine years in prison followed by three years’ supervised release and a $7,500 fine. He is to be sentenced by District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor Sept. 29 in Springfield.
Haskell’s lawyer, Charles P. McGinty, a federal public defender, declined to comment yesterday.
Bishop Bryant Robinson, the 73-year-old pastor of the church, said he was pleased that Haskell had pleaded guilty.
“I’m grateful to the US attorney’s office for their diligence in prosecuting this case and also to the investigators who used their precious skills and talents to identify the perpetrators,’’ he said.
Gleason’s trial on similar charges is scheduled to start next Wednesday, said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for Ortiz.
No trial date has been set for Jacques.
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