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Co-conspirator possible in First Ward arson case; New details released in probe of hate crime

No one's naming names, but there are new details about who is behind the alleged hate crime arson in Buffalo's Old First Ward last year.

Federal prosecutors filed court papers that claim Michael Fijal, the First Ward resident charged in the case, spoke repeatedly with someone identified only as "Co-Conspirator One" about the need to torch the house at 179 Mackinaw St.

"If you take care of it, I'd kick in money," Fijal allegedly told the person before the May 22, 2011, fire.

The government's court papers, a response to Fijal's attempts to suppress his statements to FBI agents, provide more information on who may have been involved and how they plotted to burn the vacant house on Mackinaw.

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

The owner, a refugee from Congo, purchased the building in March and had started making repairs when it suddenly caught fire one night nearly a year ago.

Fijal, according to new court papers, 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."

"Yeah, we could take care of it," Co-Conspirator One allegedly told Fijal.

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.

Investigators suspected early on that the house was torched by a small group of people who wanted the owner, a black man, out of the Old First Ward neighborhood.

Prosecutors are still looking into the possibility that the arson-for-hire might be racially motivated.

Down in the ward, where Fijal is well known and widely respected, there's a belief that the government must be wrong about him.

He's viewed as a leader in the neighborhood, a man incapable of setting fire to another person's home.

In his motion to suppress, Fijal argues that his statements to the FBI were taken without a Miranda warning by agents and therefore are illegal statements that need to be tossed out by the court.

"We believe they were custodial interrogations," Herbert Greenman, Fijal's lawyer, said of his client's conversations with the FBI.

Greenman declined to comment on the government's new court papers and the allegations that his client conspired with at least one other person.

The government's court papers suggest Fijal and Co-Conspirator One crossed paths at least twice before the fire.

During their first encounter, according to the papers, Fijal was asked if he had "seen what was happening with 179 Mackinaw and the negative effects of the new ownership."

The papers go on to claim that Fijal agreed to kick in money at that point, a pledge he repeated a few weeks later.

"Is it still OK?" Co-Conspirator One allegedly asked Fijal during their second conversation. "Yeah, I guess so," Fijal allegedly answered.

The court papers indicate Fijal no longer thought Co-Conspirator One was joking about the fire because it was their second conversation about 179 Mackinaw. Investigators claim Fijal confirmed his role when he later told them that two cash withdrawals from his HSBC bank account -- one for $300 on May 23 and another for $500 on May 25 -- may have helped finance the arson.

"The defendant stated that these could have been the withdrawals which funded the payments to Co-Conspirator One," the court papers say.

Fijal is the only one charged in the arson-for-hire scheme, but court papers indicate he has repeatedly denied starting the fire or providing any tools to help start it.

He also has denied any knowledge about a crowbar that might have been used to break into 179 Mackinaw.

There were actually two fires at 179 Mackinaw. The first was in March shortly after the victim bought the house, and the second was in May shortly after he started work on it. Both caught the attention of the FBI, Buffalo fire marshals and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Prosecutors won't comment on other potential suspects, but the indictment suggests the identity of one is known to the federal grand jury that indicted Fijal. "The investigation is ongoing, and any information the public may have that is beneficial is certainly welcome," said FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey.