Change of plea hearing set for 1 accused in church arson

| June 12, 2010

One of three white men charged in the 2008 arson of a predominantly black church in Springfield shortly after the election of President Obama will change his plea to guilty next week in federal court, according to court documents and people familiar with the case.

Benjamin Haskell, 23, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy against the rights of citizens in connection with the Nov. 5, 2008, arson. He has a change-of-plea hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning in federal court in Springfield, records show.

A person informed of the plea change told the Associated Press that Haskell will plead guilty. The person asked not to be named ahead of the hearing. In addition, Lori H. Levinson, an attorney for another one of the suspects, said Haskell will plead guilty.

Thomas Gleason Jr., 22, and Michael Jacques, 25, have also pleaded not guilty to several charges including conspiracy against civil rights and use of fire to commit a felony. Court records do not show a change of plea hearing scheduled for either man.

According to a federal complaint, Haskell and Jacques told an unidentified witness that they burned down the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, located on Tinkham Road. Haskell told the witness that “we did it’’ because “it was a black church,’’ the complaint said.

The church, a new building under construction at the time of the fire, was destroyed except for a metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner, according to the complaint.

Jacques told the witness that the men poured about 5 gallons of gasoline around the back corner of the building and that lighting the vinyl siding ensured that the structure “went up quickly,’’ the complaint said. He also told the witness that he thought Obama would be assassinated, according to the complaint.

Haskell’s attorney, Charles P. McGinty, did not immediately return messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz declined to comment. Gleason’s attorney, Mark J. Albano, also declined comment.

But Jacques’s attorney, Levinson, said that her client maintains his innocence.

“Yes I know [Haskell is] pleading guilty but my understanding is that he is [not] testifying against the other two,’’ she said in an e-mail message.

“He’s just trying to minimize his exposure. My client absolutely maintains his innocence and believes Haskell is just too scared to go to trial.’’

Bishop Bryant Robinson, pastor of the 300-member church, declined to comment on the case yesterday but said his congregation is focused on “moving forward.’’

“We’ve been going forward ever since that tragic morning,’’ he said, adding that a new church on the same site is scheduled to open next year.

He said that he has been in contact with prosecutors and that church members may testify if there is a trial.

“If these fellows are indeed the persons who committed the crime, then they must face the consequences of that behavior,’’ he said.

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Category: Church Security

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