Church fire suspect ‘wired’

| May 19, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – A suspect in a racially charged church burning wore an FBI wire on two of his friends early in the investigation, and appears to be on the edge of a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Evidentiary hearings that opened in U.S. District Court on Tuesday provided a glimpse of how the probe unfolded in the days and weeks after the Macedonia Church of God in Christ burned to the ground on Nov. 5, 2008.

The spectacular blaze drew a swarm of local, state and federal officials given the apparent intersection of the historic election of President Barack H. Obama and the church's largely black congregation.

Two months after the Springfield fire, the FBI charged three young men who lived near the church on Tinkham Road: Benjamin F. Haskell, 23, Thomas A. Gleason Jr., 22, and Michael F. Jacques, 25. They face federal civil rights violations and other charges, and are scheduled to be tried separately starting in late June.

Meanwhile, defense lawyers for Jacques and Gleason are trying to knock out of evidence videotaped confessions, arguing the men were tormented by a state trooper and an FBI agent for hours in the middle of the night until they gave reluctant statements. Jacques also asserts he was in the throes of opiate withdrawal.

The government has countered the confessions were voluntary and proper. Investigators say Jacques showed no signs of being drug-starved during an interrogation that lasted from just after 7 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2008 until a little before 3 a.m. the next morning.

Haskell was conspicuously absent on Tuesday. His lawyer, public defender Charles P. McGinty, was excused from the hearing after an early sidebar discussion with U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul H. Smyth refused to say whether Haskell is in plea negotiations; McGinty did not return a call for comment.

FBI agent Ian Smythe testified that investigators received tips on three suspects within days of the fire. They began contacting potential witnesses, rooting through the trio's trash and ultimately tapping phone lines to develop their profiles, Smythe said.

The agent said a task force developed to solve the case identified Haskell as most vulnerable.

"He was the weak link. He liked to brag. He liked to run his mouth," Smythe told Ponsor, adding that Jacques seemed much more circumspect and thus, a tougher nut to crack for law enforcement.

Haskell sold drugs and ammunition to an undercover state trooper, then quickly confessed to setting the fire and agreed to try to implicate Jacques and Gleason, who helped set the fire, witnesses said on Tuesday.

Massachusetts State Police Trooper Henot Rivera, an undercover narcotics investigator, testified that he posed as a man named "Jose," whom Haskell introduced to his two friends on Jan. 15. Both the trooper and Haskell were recording conversations with the pair, testimony showed. Rivera posed as a man recruiting experienced arsonists to torch a commercial building in Holyoke for a fee, coaxing Jacques and Gleason to talk about the church in the process.

"How'd you guys do the church?" Rivera could be heard asking on an audiotape played in court.

"The only thing left standing is all the steel," Gleason is heard answering on the tape, adding that the church was a nearly complete construction project from which he previously ripped off plywood and other materials. "It was supposed to open up, like, in another month or two. There were church seats … in it."

Witnesses told investigators that one or more of the men boasted that they had doused the church with gasoline to denounce the election of the nation's first black president. Jacques' videotaped interview shows a state arson investigator needling him about his racial views, to which he alluded on tape.

"The reason you did it was you … hated the idea of a black man being president … We know from other things you said that you have a dislike for African-Americans," Trooper Michael S. Mazza said.

"Only some of them," Jacques responded.

"(That's like being) halfway pregnant," Smythe interjected.

Jacques and Gleason recently were charged in a superseding indictment with committing a hate crime and using fire to commit a felony. The charges are linked to the same set of allegations, but carry far weightier sentences, including a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term.

Defense lawyers are expected to focus on a so-called six-hour standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled suspects should not be interrogated for more than six hours running without being presented to a federal magistrate judge.

The suppression hearing is expected to continue for several more days.

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Category: Church Security