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FBI offers reward of $10,000 in Ward arsons; Accomplices sought in alleged hate crimes

The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information about other individuals involved in two alleged hate-crime arsons in Buffalo's Old First Ward.

The reward is designed to spur anyone with information about the 2011 fires at 179 Mackinaw St. to contact investigators.

The FBI's announcement of a reward Thursday came just weeks after federal prosecutors filed court papers suggesting that Michael W. Fijal, the only person charged in the arson-for-hire case, did not act alone.

"Law enforcement investigators believe there are members of the public, especially individuals living in the Old First Ward, who have information about additional individuals responsible for the arsons," said Christopher M. Piehota, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.

Prosecutors contend that Fijal, a longtime resident of the Old First Ward, spoke repeatedly with a "co-conspirator" about the need to torch the duplex on Mackinaw.

"It's an old law enforcement saying, 'If the public sees something, they should say something,' " said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "We've now added to that saying, 'If the public says something, we will do something.' "

Investigators suspected early on that the house was torched because the owner, a Congo refugee, is black. The owner, who authorities have declined to identify, bought the house in March 2011 and had started making repairs when it suddenly caught fire.

Within days of the fire, investigators declared it an arson and suspected that it might be a hate crime.

"The victim is a refugee who fled oppression and immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the American dream," Frank J. Christiano, resident agent in charge of the ATF's Buffalo office, told reporters.

The investigation into the fires began with the Buffalo Fire Marshal's Office but soon expanded to include the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Anyone with information on the fires -- March 12 and May 22 of last year -- is encouraged to call the FBI at 856-7800 or the ATF at 853-5070.

The reward is intended for anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals responsible for the arsons.

Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said the case is about more than arson, referring to the firefighter who was injured while fighting the May 2011 fire on Mackinaw. "We take this very seriously," he said.

The firefighter, who was not seriously injured, is back on the job.

Investigators are hoping the reward will encourage people in the neighborhood who have information on the fires but have been afraid to talk to finally come forward.

They also did not rule out the possibility that more serious criminal charges may be filed.

"We can't rule out the potential for a hate-crime motivation," Piehota said Thursday.

So far, the only person charged in the case is Fijal, of Tennessee Street, a prominent leader in the Old First Ward.

According to new court papers, Fijal told investigators that "Co-Conspirator One" referred to the owner's plans for an apartment in the building and the potential for tenants who are "dirtbags."

Fijal told investigators that he took that to mean that the other person intended to set fire to the house and that the person "might be half-joking," so he responded that he would "kick in $600 or $700," the court papers say.

This is the second time recently the local FBI has used a reward as an incentive.

In 2010, the bureau offered a $20,000 reward for information regarding an attempt to derail an Amtrak passenger train on the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Investigators said they know there are people who have information on the individual who placed a barricade of railroad ties on the tracks. The train was carrying 354 people, but no one was seriously hurt. The reward offer is still active.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com