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NOVEMBER 1, 2010

BOSTON, Mass. - A Springfield man was sentenced to prison today in federal court for his role in the 2008 burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominately African American Church, on the morning after President Barack Obama was elected as the first African American President of the United States.

BENJAMIN HASKELL, 24, of Springfield, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor to nine years imprisonment; to be followed by three years of supervised release, with the special condition that Haskell participate in racial sensitivity training, and pay over $1.7 million in restitution including $123,570.25 to the Macedonia Church.

On June 16, 2010, Haskell pleaded guilty to conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate the mostly African American parishioners of the Macedonia Church in the free exercise of the right to hold and use their new church building which was under construction, and damaging the parishioners’ new church building through arson and obstructing their free exercise of religion because of their race, color and ethnic characteristics.

At the earlier plea hearing, a prosecutor told the Court that had the case proceeded to trial the Government’s evidence would have proven that in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, within hours of President Barack Obama being elected, Haskell and his co-conspirators agreed to burn down, and did burn down, the Macedonia Church’s newly constructed building where religious services were to be held. The building was 75% completed at the time of the fire, which destroyed nearly the entire structure, leaving only the metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner intact. Investigators determined that the fire was caused by arsonists who poured and ignited gasoline on the interior and exterior of the building.

After an intensive joint investigation Haskell and his co-conspirators were identified as the arsonists. Haskell confessed to the crime and admitted that prior to the Presidential election he and his co-conspirators used racial slurs against African Americans and expressed their anger at the possible election of Barack Obama as the first African American President. Haskell admitted that after Obama was declared the winner of the election, he and his co-conspirators walked through the woods behind the Macedonia Church to scout out burning it down. Then, in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, Haskell and his co-conspirators went back to the church, poured gasoline inside and outside of the church and ignited the gasoline. The resulting fire destroyed nearly the entire structure of the new church building.

“The burning of the Macedonia Church because of racial hatred and intolerance was a vicious attack on one of our most cherished freedoms - to worship in the religion of our choice safely and without fear of discrimination,” said U.S. Attorney Ortiz. “The successful investigation, prosecution and punishment of those who committed this hateful act is a clear statement that law enforcement will do all in its power to protect our citizens’ civil rights.”

“I commend the commitment and cooperation of the local, state and federal law enforcement officers who investigated and solved this terrible crime,” she added. “I also commend the religious leaders and the congregants of many faiths who came together after the fire to support the Macedonia Church congregation and to demonstrate that religious freedom and tolerance is a fundamental right of all people.”

“The freedom to practice the religion that we choose without 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. “As seen here today, the Department will prosecute anyone who violates that right to the fullest extent of the law.”

District Attorney William Bennett said, “This was a despicable crime that impacted our entire community. Local, state and federal investigators worked as a team to insure that those responsible would be held accountable. Congratulations to them and to United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz.”

“While ATF is charged with investigating some of the most violent crimes, I consider arson to be one of the most serious and dangerous offenses. Not only was this case about the burning of a house of worship, it cut to the very heart of our most valued right, that of religious freedom. I want to acknowledge all of our partners who assisted in bringing the individuals responsible for this fire to justice,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge Guy Thomas.

“Today’s sentencing represents just one more step toward closure and healing, not only for the victims of this hate crime, but for the Springfield community as a whole. The FBI, along with its Federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, remains committed to protecting each and every citizen’s civil rights, and will aggressively investigate any violation of those rights, bringing the perpetrators to justice,” said Richard DesLauriers, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI.
United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz; Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Guy Thomas, Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives - Boston Field Division; Richard DesLauriers, 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 made the announcement today.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. 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.

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