President Barack Obama kept apprised of black church arson case in Springfield following his election

| May 20, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – In the days after the historic presidential election of 2008, officials in the highest reaches of the federal government had their eyes on Springfield.

According to testimony in the second day of evidentiary hearings in a high-profile church burning case in federal court, three underemployed young men who lived with their parents had drawn the attention of the U.S. Attorney General and then-President-elect Barack Obama.

“There was one church in the United States of America that burned on the night when Barack Obama became the first black president,” FBI Agent Ian Smythe told one suspect, Thomas A. Gleason Jr., during a videotaped interrogation in the middle of the night on Jan. 16, 2008. “One black church. And it was in your backyard.”

Smythe told Gleason the task force assembled to probe what they believed to be a racially motivated arson was providing constant briefings to the White House.

“They don’t bring in the FBI for jaywalking, you understand me?” Smythe barked at Gleason during the interview. “I am briefing the attorney general of the United States and the president-elect of the United States on this case.”

Gleason, 22, Michael F. Jacques, 25, and Benjamin F. Haskell, 23, have been charged in connection with torching the Macedonia Church of God in Christ on Tinkham Road on Nov. 5, 2008. Investigators say the men all gave videotaped confessions and conceded they doused the partially constructed church with gasoline to condemn the election.

Hearings in U.S. District Court have cast a spotlight on those videotaped confessions, which appeared to sew up a three-month local, state and federal investigation into the blaze. However, defense lawyers for Jacques and Gleason argue investigators bullied their clients into falsely confessing during hours of grueling questioning. If U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor decides to suppress the interviews, the government’s case would be considerably weaker.

Prosecutors have countered that the confessions were gleaned through classic law enforcement interrogation techniques and were entirely proper and voluntary.

Court records and testimony have shown Haskell was identified by investigators as the “weak link” among the three and was easily convinced to confess, then wear a wire on his two friends after fingering them as accomplices. All three are scheduled to be tried separately in late June, but Haskell appears poised for a plea since he has been absent from the suppression hearings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul H. Smyth has refused to comment.

Originally charged with federal civil rights violations, Jacques and Gleason also face charges of damaging religious property because of race, color or ethnicity (a hate crime) and using fire to commit a federal felony. The latter charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.

During cross-examination, Jacques’ lawyer, Lori H. Levinson, picked apart her client’s nearly seven-hour interview with Smythe and Massachusetts State Trooper Michael S. Mazza. She noted that Jacques denied any involvement for the vast majority of the interrogation.

The hearings will resume next Wednesday and are expected to last up to three more days.

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Category: Church Security

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