Arson case confession presented

| May 28, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – At first blush, the 22-year-old part-time handyman may have seemed an unlikely suspect for a hate crime.

Thomas A. Gleason Jr., a Sixteen Acres kid, was perhaps slightly troubled, but seemed affable enough when a state trooper and an FBI agent first began questioning him in a tiny interview room at the courthouse on State Street in the middle of the night on Jan. 16, 2008, according to testimony in U.S. District Court.

Gleason is one of three men charged in a high-profile church burning that sparked just hours after President Barack Obama was elected that year. Investigators say he and two friends, disgruntled over the success of the nation's first black president, torched the predominantly black Macedonia Church of God in Christ in protest.

Gleason is scheduled to be tried starting June 21. His lawyers have been battling in court to bar a videotaped confession from evidence during ongoing hearings. They argue he was bullied into giving a false confession during more than four hours of interrogation. Investigators maintain it was a standard interview and Gleason's admissions were voluntary.

Charged with committing a hate crime and a federal felony using arson, he faces a minimum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

Also charged in the case are Michael F. Jacques, 25, and Benjamin F. Haskell, 22.

According to testimony in the hearings, Gleason was scooped up by police and federal agents after one of his codefendants introduced him to an undercover trooper who duped him into agreeing to commit an arson for a fee and bragging about the tactics that started the massive church blaze. It was all caught on tape, unbeknownst to Gleason – at least early on in the interrogation.

"Am I here about my taxes?" Gleason queried State Trooper Michael S. Mazza and FBI agent Ian Smythe, referring to some under-the-table masonry work he had done for a friend.

Portions of the videotaped interview played in court on Thursday show the investigators got to the point fairly quickly after some idle small talk. Mazza testified that Gleason initially denied even knowing the church had a predominantly black congregation, then admitted otherwise.

"I'm not a racist or nothin'," he said with a laugh.

"I'm not asking if you're a racist. Goodness gracious," Mazza responded on the videotape.

Early in the interview, when he was denying any involvement in the fire, Gleason told the investigators he falsely bragged to friends about the fire.

"I was pulling (expletive) out of my ass. I think I said I wrote 'hate nigger' on the front lawn. I told him I did it in napalm in the driveway," he said during the interview, later adding that he had voted for Obama.

"Napalm" is a phrase that has cropped up frequently in the case. The suspects can be heard on various surveillance tapes boasting about a highly flammable homemade brew of foam and kerosene they used in the church fire.

After more than three hours of denials, Gleason is shown dissolving into tears.

"They came to me," he blurted through sobs. "(They said) It's cool, come with us. I was like: that's the stupidest (expletive) thing I've ever heard. I didn't dump no gas or nothing."

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Category: Church Security