SECOND DEFENDANT IN SPRINGFIELD CHURCH ARSON PLEADS GUILTY
BOSTON, Mass. - A Springfield man was convicted today of conspiring to deny the civil rights of the members of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, and causing damage to the church through the use of fire.
United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz; Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Eugenio A. Marquez, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives - Boston Field Division; James C. Burrell, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - Boston Field Office; Colonel Marian J. McGovern, Superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police; Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett; and Springfield Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet announced that THOMAS GLEASON, 22, of Springfield, pleaded guilty to three crimes related to the burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. The predominantly African American church was burned down on the morning following the election of Barack Obama, as the first African American President of the United States.
Count One: Conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate the parishioners of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in the free exercise or enjoyment of the right to hold and use real property, a right which is secured in the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Count Two: Damaging religious property and obstructing the free exercise of religious because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that religious property.
Count Three: Use of fire to commit a federal felony.
U.S. Attorney Ortiz said, “As the second defendant in this disturbing case pleads guilty, I hope it sends a strong message that hate crimes are taken very seriously in Massachusetts.”
“The freedom to practice the religion that we choose in a safe environment without being subjected to discrimination or hateful acts is a fundamental right to which every individual is entitled,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Anyone who violates that right will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The superseding indictment charges that in the early morning hours of November 5, 2008, within hours of Obama being elected President, GLEASON and his co-conspirators agreed to burn and succeeded in burning the Macedonia Church of God in Christ’s newly-constructed building where religious services were to be held for its predominantly African American congregation. The building was nearly completed at the time of the fire, which destroyed the entire structure leaving only the metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner intact. Investigators determined the fire to be incendiary in nature and caused by an unknown quantity of gasoline applied to the exterior and interior of the building.
At today’s plea hearing, the prosecutor told the Court that had the case proceeded to trial the Government ’s evidence would have proven the following: that the Church is comprised of approximately 300 members, with over 90 percent of the members being African-American, including Bishop Bryant Robinson, the Chief Executive Officer and Pastor. In 2007, Bishop Robinson and the Church began construction of a new building at 215 Tinkham Road, in Springfield. By election night, construction of the new church was approximately 75 percent completed.
Prior to the Nov. 4, 2008 presidential election, GLEASON and his co-conspirators used racial slurs against African-Americans and expressed anger about the possible election of Obama as the first African-American President. On Nov. 4, 2008, GLEASON and his co-conspirators agreed to retaliate against the election by burning the new church because the church members, congregation and Bishop were African-American.
In furtherance of their agreement to burn the new church, on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, GLEASON and his co-conspirators walked through the woods to the rear of the new building. The three men examined the church building in preparation for burning it, and in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, one or more of them entered the building through a window, poured gasoline on the interior and ignited the gasoline. They then poured gasoline on the exterior of the building and ignited the gasoline. The resulting fire destroyed nearly the entire structure of the new building.
In the days and weeks after the fire, GLEASON admitted to others that he had committed the church arson. In addition, according to the statement of facts, GLEASON told others that he had used napalm to write “hate nigger” on the ground near the church. On Jan. 16, 2009, GLEASON confessed to law enforcement officers that he and his co-conspirators burned down the church in retaliation for Obama being elected as the first African-American President.
On June 15, 2010, co-conspirator BENJAMIN HASKELL pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 29, at 3:00 p.m. By the terms of the plea agreement, HASKELL faces mandatory sentence of 108 months imprisonment to be followed by three years of supervised release and a $7,500 fine. Co-conspirator MICHAEL JACQUES is pending trial.
The case was investigated by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Massachusetts State Police; Hampden County District Attorney’s Office and the Springfield Police Department. It is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Paul H. Smyth and Kevin O’Regan of Ortiz’s Springfield Office and Nicole Lee Ndumele, Trial Attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.