"The American Dream Deferred"
Written by Daniel Corbitt, Esq.
“If you take care of it, I’d kick in money.” With those deviously simple words, Michael Fijal condemned a family’s piece of the American Dream to a smoldering pile of ashes.
In May of 2011, Fijal paid an accomplice to torch a house located at 179 Mackinaw Street in the Old First Ward. Fijal paid the arsonist again after the cruel deed was complete.
Fijal’s support provided what prosecutors would later characterize as the “proverbial match and gasoline.”
Today, the site is a grassy vacant lot. Six years ago, it represented a tangible piece of a dream realized – a clear path to a better tomorrow for a family who had recently bought the house after arriving from the Congo in search of refuge from persecution and devastation.
At the time, investigators believed that the arson may have been a hate crime. Fijal would later claim that the conspirators had been concerned about the new owners’ plans for an apartment located in the house, and decided arson was the best way to address their fears of potential “dirtbag” tenants at 179 Mackinaw.
It’s telling that Fijal and his fellow criminals assumed that the tenants would be “dirtbags.” There are many rental properties in the Old First Ward, some of which are owned by slumlords who fail to maintain their properties and rent to individuals who engage in illicit activities. Michael Fijal had lived in that neighborhood for decades, but had never been compelled to bankroll an arson-for-hire scheme to destroy any of those properties.
Despite Fijal’s denials that his crime was motivated by racial hatred or xenophobia, he and his co-conspirators targeted a black family from the Congo and no one else. Moreover, Fijal had never spoken a single word to his victims. The unprovoked, anonymous aspect of this crime would continue to terrorize its victims many years after the fire’s smoke had cleared. They lived in fear of the possibility that the faceless perpetrators would again strike from the shadows, and this time, kill them all.
During his sentencing six years later, Fijal’s defense attorney stated that his client wished he could shake his victims’ hands and apologize. Perhaps if he had shaken their hands six years ago and welcomed them to the neighborhood, this tragedy would never have happened. Fijal may have come to know a truly remarkable family, learning their plans for the property and appreciating their inspirational story in the process.
Through strength and resolve these New Americans had escaped the unimaginable horrors of war and genocide to come to our city in search of opportunity. The family had seized this opportunity, working multiple low-paying jobs while saving and scraping together enough money to buy a little house in the Old First Ward. It was a piece of the American Dream, a place of safety and sanctuary as well as a tangible pathway to a promise of a better tomorrow.
After buying the house in March of 2011 they immediately got to work – investing their time and money to fix it up into a proper home. The family planned to live in one unit and rent out the other, the income from which would help pay their children’s college tuition. Clearly, these were not slumlords.
Fijal and his co-conspirators may have realized that had they bothered to notice anything but the color of the family’s skin.
Over six years have passed since the arson forced the family to once again seek refuge. Six long years of delayed justice, recurring frustration, and relived trauma. Despite extraordinary efforts by the FBI, including a $10,000 reward and a billboard campaign, no one has ever come forward to cooperate and provide information. Fijal himself never identified his co-conspirators, despite being arrested and pleading guilty to the crime in 2012. Ultimately, the prosecutors never charged Fijal with a hate crime. As part of his plea agreement, Fijal faced a maximum of 33 months in prison. To this date, no other arrests have been made, and the case has gone cold.
Fijal was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and his sentencing was postponed dozens of times as he requested adjournments to seek medical treatment. U.S. District Judge
Richard Arcara granted those requests, even against the objections of the prosecutor, who had requested that sentencing move forward to provide some measure of closure to the victims.
Finally, on August 9th, 2017, the adjournments came to an end and Fijal stood before Judge Arcara to receive his sentence. The judge read aloud from letters of support from Fijal’s family and friends, over 50 of which he had received, that praised the confessed criminal for his dedication to his community and his willingness to lend a helping hand to those in need. In a truly bizarre moment, Fijal’s defense attorney even suggested that his client was just a poor patsy who had been caught up in this dastardly plot out of his innate desire to help others.
The judge was clearly persuaded by these letters of support, several of which vehemently denied that Fijal was a racist. Incredibly, the writer of one of these letters identified himself as a member of the Buffalo Fire Department, which is truly shocking when considering not only the nature of the crime, but also that a Buffalo firefighter had been injured responding to the blaze.
In the end, Judge Arcara sentenced Fijal to three years of supervised release instead of imprisonment. He was also ordered to pay $92,506.05 in restitution: $33,235 to the City of Buffalo for demolishing and removing the charred remains of 179 Mackinaw; $59,271.05 to reimburse insurance companies for the damage done to neighboring houses; and only $26,806 to the family whose home he helped destroy.
After six long years of fear, frustration, and trauma, one part of this tragic story has come to an end. Another will soon begin.
HOME will continue to fight for justice for the victims of this crime in a pending civil proceeding. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, this story will never have a happy ending. A crime as senseless and corrosive as what occurred in May of 2011 only leaves grief and destruction in its wake.
HOME’s mission of outreach and education is more critical than ever if we are to break the cycle of fear and hate that fuel these types of vicious, senseless acts, and prevent them from occurring in the future. We need to tear down the walls between us, sometimes with something as simple as a hello and a handshake. Had that happened here, perhaps the First Ward would have been strengthened by a hardworking family that only wanted to invest in the neighborhood and pursue a little piece of happiness in their new homeland. Instead, there is just another vacant grassy lot.