Man gets 20 years in firebomb attack

Gang aimed to burn house, kill woman

September 13, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,sun reporter

The last of eight people convicted in a plot to burn down the home of a North Baltimore community leader was sentenced yesterday to more than 20 years in federal prison, closing a witness-intimidation case that sparked concerns over the safety those who report crime in some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

The end came in U.S. District Court in Baltimore about 18 months after the highly publicized attack, a final hearing in which the victim briefly talked about her life after the firebombing, a defendant apologized for his role in the assault and the judge explained why the two-decade prison term was just punishment for a crime he called "intolerable."

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz sentenced Andre Wilkins, 33, of Baltimore to the lengthy prison term, followed by five years of supervised release. Wilkins had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit witness tampering and use of fire and explosives to commit a felony.

"You were out there destroying neighborhoods before the firebombing. And the firebombing only made it worse," Motz said. "A 20-year sentence is certainly appropriate."

Wilkins did not know the victim, former Harwood Community Association President Edna McAbier, nor did he pick up a flaming Molotov cocktail or throw one on top of McAbier's roof and window sills on Jan. 15, 2005.

"I didn't want any harm to be brought against you," Wilkins said, addressing McAbier sitting with family members in the courtroom's back row.

Wilkins admitted he was a member of the local Bloods gang, whose leader decided that McAbier was too good at reporting illegal activity to police and needed to be killed. Wilkins, who had been initiated into the shadowy, violent drug gang only days before, also drove the getaway car to McAbier's Lorraine Avenue rowhouse that night after stopping at the gas station to buy fuel for their makeshift bombs.

"I think he should receive the benefit of the plea agreement and nothing more," Assistant U.S. Attorney A. David Copperthite told Motz yesterday morning at the hourlong hearing.

Copperthite argued that Wilkins was the worst of the three men who agreed to testify against three others at their trial last year. Wilkins' waffling on the details of the attack and whether he would assist prosecutors gave ammunition to defense attorneys when he took the stand, Copperthite said.

But Wilkins' attorney countered that his client gave a confession to authorities almost immediately after his arrest.

Despite serious reservations, Wilkins also testified against his fellow gang members in spite of retaliatory threats against Wilkins' family. Gregg L. Bernstein said his client should have received a sentence similar to one given to another cooperator, Isaac Smith, who was sent to prison for 12 1/2 years.

The city's top prosecutor and the state's top federal prosecutor have said their joint effort in the McAbier firebombing case -- which included evidence of a Bloods video made by the defendants about witness intimidation -- should remind criminals of the harsh penalties available in federal court.

"Eight criminals have been exiled to serve sentences of up to 80 years in federal prison for trying to intimidate a woman who wanted to keep her neighborhood safe from drug dealers," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement yesterday. "The swift and lengthy sentences imposed on the perpetrators of the Harwood firebombing demonstrate that we will not tolerate witness intimidation."

On the night of the attack, McAbier called police at 1:40 a.m. and said she had heard a loud noise on her roof. And liquid, she added, was burning on the pavement out front. When police arrived, they found shards of brown glass near a burned patch on the ground. On the second floor, they spotted soot just below a front bay window.

Police and fire investigators found evidence of five Molotov cocktails -- brown beer bottles filled with flammable fluid and topped with a cloth wick. Some never ignited; others never broke. Fire investigators estimated the damage at $100.

The firebombing reminded many of the Oct. 16, 2002, blaze that engulfed the East Baltimore rowhouse of Angela and Carnell Dawson, killing the couple and five of their children. Darrell L. Brooks, the arsonist who targeted the Dawsons because they reported crime in their neighborhood, pleaded guilty in federal court in August 2003 and is serving a life sentence without parole.

In court yesterday, McAbier thanked Rosenstein's office as well as local and federal investigators who prosecuted her attackers, some of whom she knew from her neighborhood activities.

"This has been absolutely devastating," said McAbier, who said she will never live in her Harwood home again.

Replied Motz: "You may have left the neighborhood, but you haven't lost your invincible spirit. ... And that's important for everyone."

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