SPRINGFIELD MAN PLEADS GUILTY TO CHURCH ARSON
BOSTON, Mass. - A Springfield man was convicted today in federal court 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; Tom E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Glenn N. Anderson, Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives - Boston Field Division; Warren T. Bamford, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - Boston Field Office; Colonel Marian J. McGovern, Superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police; William Bennett, Hampden County District Attorney; and Commissioner William J. Fitchet of the Springfield Police Department announced that BENJAMIN HASKELL, 23, of Springfield, pled guilty to a superseding information charging him with two crimes related to the burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American church, in Springfield on the morning after President Barack Obama was elected 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.
United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz said, “Today's conviction should send a strong message that hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted in Massachusetts. When I announced my Civil Rights Initiative earlier this month, I made it clear that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be reinvigorating it's efforts in this area, and making it one our top priorities.”
“The freedom to practice the religion that we choose in a safe environment without being subjected to discrimination or hateful acts is among our nation’s most cherished rights,” 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 information charged that in the early morning hours of November 5, 2008, within hours of President Barack Obama being elected, HASKELL 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 75% 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 Macedonia Church of God in Christ (the “Church”), is comprised of approximately 300 members, with over ninety percent of the members being African-American, including Bishop Bryant Robinson, the Chief Executive Officer and Pastor of the Church. In 2007, Bishop Robinson and the Church began construction of a new church building at 215 Tinkham Road, Springfield, Mass. By November 4, 2008, construction of the new church building was approximately seventy-five percent completed.
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected to be the first African-American President of the United States of America. Prior to the Presidential election, HASKELL and his co-conspirators used racial slurs against African-Americans and expressed anger about the possible election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. On November 4, 2008, HASKELL and his co-conspirators agreed to retaliate against the election of President Barack Obama by burning the new church building that was being constructed by the Macedonia Church of God in Christ because the church members, congregation and Bishop were African-American.
In furtherance of their agreement to burn the new church, in the late evening hours of November 4, 2008, HASKELL and his co-conspirators walked through the woods to the rear of the new church building. HASKELL and his co-conspirators examined the church building in preparation for burning it, and in the early morning hours of November 5, 2008, one or more of the co-conspirators entered the new church building through a window, poured gasoline on the interior of the building 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 church building.
In the days following the fire, HASKELL and a co-conspirator drove an acquaintance to the site of the burned out church in order to view the damage they had caused. After initially taking responsibility for the fire, HASKELL and the co-conspirator devised a plan to conceal their participation in burning the church by blaming “two kids from Wilbraham.” On January 14, 2009, HASKELL confessed to law enforcement officers that he and his co-conspirators burned down the church in retaliation for President Barack Obama being elected as the first African-American President of the United States.
Judge Ponsor scheduled sentencing for September 29, 2010 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 $7,500.00 fine.
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 Civil Right’s Division.