SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — One of three white men charged with burning down a predominantly black church hours after Barack Obama was elected president pleaded guilty to civil rights charges Wednesday in a plea deal that calls for him to spend nine years in prison.
Benjamin Haskell, 23, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and damaging religious property because of race, color or ethnic characteristics. Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 29.
The fire destroyed the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.
The church was under construction at the time, but almost complete. It had about 300 members, 90 percent of whom were black, according to federal authorities.
The other two men charged in the case, Thomas Gleason Jr., 22, and Michael Jacques, 25, have pleaded not guilty to charges of violating civil rights, damaging religious property because of race, color or ethnic characteristics, and using fire to commit a felony.
Investigators said they were led to the suspects by an informant.
The men told the informant they had set the fire, according to an FBI affidavit. When the informant asked Haskell why, Haskell said “because it was a black church,” according to the affidavit.
The men allegedly told investigators they walked through the woods behind the church, got in through a side window and doused the inside and outside with about five gallons of gasoline. The fire left little more than a metal frame and resulted in minor injuries to three firefighters.
“Today’s conviction should send a strong message that hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted in Massachusetts,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement after the hearing.
Haskell’s attorney, Charles McGinty, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.