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3 men held in Mass election night church fire in Springfield

Three white men were arrested in connection with the torching of a predominantly black church hours after Barack Obama won the presidential election.

world Updated: Jan 17, 2009 12:01 IST

Three white men were arrested on Friday in connection with the torching of a predominantly black church hours after Barack Obama won the presidential election. The Nov 5 fire destroyed the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, which was under construction.

The suspects, Benjamin Haskell, 23, Michael Jacques, 24, and Thomas Gleason, 21, were held without bail after a hearing in federal court in Springfield. No pleas were entered at the hearing. The men were charged with violating a civil rights conspiracy statute that makes it illegal to injure, threaten, or intimidate anyone from exercising their civil rights.

It wasn't immediately clear if the men were being charged with setting the fire.

A judge continued the hearing until on Wednesday and said he was considering a $100,000 bail with electronic monitoring for the men. The blaze caused an estimated $2 million in damage. Within hours, state fire investigators called it arson.

"They literally turned a building of hope into a spectacular conflagration as their protest to Barack Obama's election as president of the United States," prosecutor Kevin O'Regan said at the hearing where he argued the men should not be granted bail. "The case is not what it seems on paper," said Gleason's attorney, Mark Albano. Haskell's lawyer Thomas O'Connor pointed out that his client has no criminal record. All the attorneys declined comment outside the courtroom.

Investigators got a break in the case when a witness came forward and said he'd been driven to the site of the fire by two of the accused men. He said Jacques asked him who he had voted for in the election; when he responded "Obama," Jacques replied with a profane racial epithet, then said he thought Obama would be assassinated, the unidentified witness told investigators. One of the suspects told investigators the men purposefully ignited vinyl siding to ensure the church went up in flames quickly, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. The document also indicated the suspects initially denied involvement when questioned by police then blamed each other for the idea to douse the church with gasoline and ignite it. Haskell told authorities Jacques said he was angry the country was going to have an African American president and that he thought "blacks and Puerto Ricans would now have more rights than whites," according to the affidavit.

The church's pastor, the Rev Bryant Robinson Jr, said at the hearing he doesn't believe the men should be granted bail while his church is trying to rebuild. He said the members of his congregation still are apprehensive.

"It has taken a lot of the wind out of the sails of the parishioners," he said.

First Published: Jan 17, 2009 11:51 IST