A Clarendon man who admitted setting fire to his electronics store in December and then making it look like the arson was ordered by corrupt law enforcement officers has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of making a false statement to the FBI.
Under the plea agreement, Benjamin Martin, who was originally charged with arson, will eventually be sentenced to two years in prison if U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes agrees to accept the negotiated deal after reviewing a presentence report.
Martin admitted Monday that on Dec. 12, he set fire to his computer- and cellphone-repair business, Martinegrity Solutions Inc., by throwing two lighter fluid-doused towels into the attic, where he had placed firewood, and then using a long lighter to ignite the towels.
The Madison Street business was at the end of a building housing four businesses that shared attic space, but it wasn't clear whether the other businesses were damaged.
According to court documents, Martin called 911 to report the fire, saying he was at home when an alarm company alerted him about an activated motion detector at the store, prompting him to go there and discover smoke coming out of the roof. Martin later told law enforcement agents that he told the alarm company not to notify police because he suspected that a tree frog jumping around at the store had set off the alarm again.
The documents show Martin later filed an insurance claim with Farm Bureau Insurance Co., and an investigator for the company determined the fire was set and that no forced entry had been made to the building.
On Jan. 4, Martin met with an FBI agent "to provide information about law enforcement corruption," and showed the agent a text message that he claimed he had received from the arsonist, according to his plea agreement. The text message said in part that a specific officer "paid me 1000$ 2 burn ur biz" and "wants 2 kill u. ... Betta leave town fast. He gon get u."
But according to the plea agreement, Martin had actually sent this text message to himself, using a prepaid phone card.
An FBI agent's probable-cause affidavit said Martin also claimed to have received a threatening message through Facebook and reported that earlier in December, he had received two threatening letters that were destroyed in the fire.
On March 16, agents interviewed Martin at his home before searching the store and his home, and he "affirmed his previous statements, denying that he had any involvement in the fire and claiming that it had been set by corrupt law enforcement officials," according to the affidavit.
It said Martin also denied purchasing firewood, fire igniters and the prepaid calling card, even though the FBI already knew at that point that the card had been activated Dec. 31 after being purchased the night before at a Stuttgart store, where cameras showed Martin was the buyer.
The affidavit said Martin later confessed, during the same conversation, that he had bought the phone card and the supplies and had set the fire. It said he also told agents in the same conversation that he planned to leave later in the week for China, where he had a yearlong contract to teach English, which prompted the agents to advise him against it because he likely would be facing charges.
Twelve days later, agents learned that Martin had tried to enter Canada on March 24 but was refused entry because of his criminal history. He was carrying about $12,000 in cash and a book described by a border agent as "how to lose your identity," the affidavit said.
The affidavit indicated that after an FBI agent spoke to one of Martin's relatives, Martin texted the agent from Buffalo, N.Y., saying he wanted to cooperate and would soon return to Clarendon if he "would receive only one charge and probation."
Court documents show Martin was originally indicted April 4 on an arson charge.
In his plea agreement, he acknowledged owing $21,916 to Farm Bureau Insurance. He also promised to pay toward the restitution $9,481 of the cash that was seized from him after he tried to enter Canada.
Martin was represented in court by Molly Sullivan of the federal public defender's office, and the government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters.
Metro on 08/27/2017