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Arson plotters targeted refugees, but just one man punished

After all the billboards and reward offers to snare his co-conspirators, only Michael Fijal is being punished.

It's no secret that others were involved in the arson that drove a refugee family out of Buffalo's Old First Ward. But so far, Fijal is the only one being held accountable.

A federal judge Wednesday sentenced the 63-year old First Ward resident to a year of home confinement and three years of probation, while dismissing race as a factor in the arson.

Fijal's sentence ends a six-year-old, arson-for-hire case that centered around allegations of a possible hate crime involving several neighborhood residents targeting a newly arrived family from Africa.

Refugees from the Congo, the family bought the duplex at 179 Mackinaw St. in 2010 and had started making repairs when it suddenly caught fire on a March night the following year. A second fire in May caused even more damage and led investigators to believe that both fires may have been racially motivated crimes.

“What is really scary is that I never talked to the defendant," one of the unidentified family members said of Fijal in a statement to the court. "I have never seen him, and I don’t even know what he looks like. The fact that he could do this to a complete stranger is extremely dangerous and scary.”

Fijal's arrest followed an FBI investigation that sought to identify the arsonists who planned and set the 2011 fires that forced the Congolese family to leave the neighborhood.

Six years later, no other arrests have been made, although court papers identify one of Fijal's alleged co-conspirators by the initials "J.J."

“We know that Michael Fijal did not act alone when he targeted the Mackinaw Street home," said Matthew Giacobbi, acting assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo.  “It's for this reason that we will continue to promote the FBI reward offer of up to $10,000 until every person who had a hand in this crime is identified and charged.”

From day one, the FBI suspected others were involved in the arsons, but Fijal never cooperated with investigators and no other arrests were ever made.

"He came to the United States and chased the American Dream," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch said of the victim, "but the defendant and his co-conspirators didn't care about that."

Lynch acknowledged that Fijal didn't set the fires, but described his offer of money to others to do it as the "proverbial match and gasoline."

Fijal, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and lost part of his jaw to the disease, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to damage and destroy a building by fire and faced up to 33 months in prison when he was sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

Arcara, who doesn't believe race was a factor in the fire, repeatedly pointed to the 50 or so letters of support for Fijal, including one from a member of the Buffalo Fire Department, in giving him home confinement instead of prison time.

"It would make a big difference to me if it was racially motivated," Arcara told Lynch at one point. "That's something we would never tolerate in this country."

Arcara also ordered Fijal to pay $92,500 in restitution to the victim and others.

Fijal, in a brief statement to the court, apologized to the victim and his family and said he regrets ever taking part in the arsons.

"He never got involved in this because of any racial animus," defense attorney Herbert L. Greenman said of his client and the victim. "I know he wishes he could shake the man's hand and say, 'I'm sorry.'"

As part of his plea agreement, Fijal acknowledged being part of a conspiracy to destroy the home on Mackinaw. And yet, no one else was ever charged.

"If you take care of it, I’d kick in money,” he allegedly told one of his co-conspirators.

Fijal, according to court papers, told investigators that he was concerned about the owner’s plans for an apartment in the building and the potential for tenants who are “dirtbags.” He also claims his role was secondary to those who planned and carried out the fires.

As part of its investigation, the FBI relied on a number of high-profile tactics aimed at people in the know, including those living in the First Ward.

The first incentive was a $10,000 cash reward from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

A month later, the FBI upped the pressure with billboards asking for help with the case. Investigators hoped the billboards, combined with the reward, would encourage reluctant First Ward residents to come forward and cooperate.

From the start, many First Ward residents questioned the government’s allegations against Fijal. Many see him as a good man and longtime neighbor, a neighborhood activist, a guy incapable of setting fire to a family’s house.

Prosecutors say there's a different Fijal, the man who withdrew money from his personal bank account and paid his co-conspirator both before and after the house was torched in May.

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