Informant’s acts detailed in church arson case

| October 10, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – Hours after his arrest in 2008, 22-year-old church arson suspect Benjamin Haskell was paired up with an FBI agent and had an undercover handle.

When calling a buddy, Haskell feigned being at state police barracks jail after getting pinched for a warrant and suspended license on Jan. 15. 2009. But in truth he was sitting with Special Agent Ian Smythe, recording the conversation with childhood friend Michael Jacques, using the code name "Phoenix," according to court records.

The two, along with another friend, Thomas A. Gleason Jr., were three white suspects in an allegedly racially fueled church burning hours after President Barack H. Obama was elected on Nov. 4, 2008. The set-up call Haskell placed to Jacques was an important step in an undercover sting operation that would ultimately lead to their indictments for a federal hate crime.

Gleason and Haskell have already pleaded guilty in the case – with Haskell rescinding on his pledge to remain an FBI informant and Gleason promising to testify against Jacques at trial. The two admitted dousing the Macedonia Church of God in Christ with gasoline, and burning it to the ground to denounce Obama's election. They say Jacques was with them.

Jacques has been battling in U.S. District Court for days to quash what the government labels a videotaped confession, but what a defense lawyer argues was an illegal interrogation that resulted in false admissions by Jacques. Jacques' attorney, Lori H. Levinson, contends investigators overstepped their constitutional bounds by essentially holding him hostage for almost eight hours and while he was in the throes of Percoset withdrawal.

However, prosecutors said Jacques was lucid and in control even as the night wore on to morning – and was simply persuaded to confess by tried-and-true interrogation techniques. Investigators offered the recorded phone conversation to bolster that argument on the final day of the suppression hearing on Friday.

"Umm, Jose wants to meet up with us tonight, around dinnertime. I'll already be with him and I'll pick you up," Haskell is heard telling Jacques. "Jose" was an undercover state trooper posing as a recruiter for arsonists-for-hire.

"Yeah, Jose, that dude called me last night, he said his name was Juan," Jacques responds. "…wants the bullets, right?" Court records have referenced alleged ammunitions sales by Haskell.

"Yeah," Haskell says.

"Okay. Actually, you can't even say that on the phone," Jacques cautions, believing Haskell has placed the call on a recorded line from jail.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan used the recording to try and rebut some testimony from Jacques' mother, who took the witness stand in her son's defense and told a judge that her son had a vicious Percoset habit and had been swiping his disabled father's prescriptions.

"He sound alert during that conversation, didn't he? He was even able to strategize a little bit?" O'Regan said, attempting to poke holes in the drug-addled defense.

If U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor opts to suppress the alleged confession, the government will have a considerably steeper hill to climb to convict Jacques. Ponsor said he will not rule until November, after lawyers have submitted legal memoranda on the matter.

Jacques is scheduled to go on trial at the beginning of March; Levinson said she plans to move for a change of venue because local coverage of the case has been so intense.

 

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