Three Johns Hopkins University fraternity brothers -- one of whom would have graduated Friday -- were indicted today on charges of arson, assault with intent to murder and conspiracy to commit arson in a fire last weekend that injured one student and destroyed a makeshift shanty on campus.
Russell Abrams, a 20-year-old electrical engineering student from Riverdale, N.Y., who was arrested the night of the fire; Michael Moffa, a 19-year-old junior from Bellmore, N.Y., and Richard Hoheb, 22-year-old senior from Holmdel, N.J., were named in the indictment returned today by a local grand jury. All are members of the Delta Upsilon fraternity.
The charges stem from the gasoline firebombing early Saturday morning of the shanty, which had been erected by a campus group to symbolize the living conditions of blacks in South Africa and protest the university's investment in companies that do business with Pretoria, which has a policy of racial segregation, or apartheid.
The grand jury heard statements from eight witnesses, including fraternity members who testified that they had overheard discussions of the plans to set the shanty on fire and heard talk about the incident afterward, said Baltimore State's Attorney Kurt Schmoke.
Abrams, who is still living in the fraternity house off campus on North Charles Street, was jailed after the incident and has been released on $50,000 bond. Prosecutors and attorneys for the other students said Moffa and Hoheb left town after the attack and are expected to surrender Monday in Baltimore.
Prosecutors said witnesses' testimony appeared to discount earlier theories that the fire was politically motivated or set by a group that was protesting the antiapartheid exhibit by the Coalition for a Free South Africa. "One of the witnesses laughed at the notion that there would be a discussion of politics in the fraternity house," said Schmoke.
Members of the antiapartheid group were disappointed that the indictments did not include others. "We want more," said Patrick Bond, one of three persons inside the shanty at the time of the attack. "Where are the other two people we saw fleeing the scene?"
Johns Hopkins University officials said all three indicted students would be suspended from the school until an internal hearing is held. Hoheb, a liberal arts major, will not be allowed to graduate until a decision is made about his involvement, officials said.
Contacted after the indictment, Abrams said he was innocent and added, "My only comment is to the people who spoke to the grand jury, were they down there?"
"This is really distressing," said Phillip Sutley, Hoheb's attorney. "He's from a very nice family. It's the last thing they expected. They were all planning on coming down and celebrating graduation. They're devastated."
A woman who, in a telephone interview, identified herself as Moffa's mother said she was "aware of the charges . . . but I'd really rather not get involved. It has nothing to do with my son." She said her son was not home and could not be reached.
Schmoke said the charges, which could result in a maximum 30-year prison sentence for each student, were brought against the three after the grand jury heard testimony that Schmoke claimed showed the students had discussed the possibility of a fire the night before, made a visit to the shanty to check out the area and made a map to ensure their getaway through some nearby woods.
But Schmoke said he could not say whether the persons setting the fire knew that other students were inside the shanty at the time. He said that the shanty had been occupied by students previously and that three students who were inside the shanty at the time of the fire told prosecutors that they had been talking loudly before the fire started.
"I'm admitting to you that there is substantial debate about what their ultimate intent was," Schmoke said of the intent to murder charge.
One of the three students inside the shanty, Kevin Archer, a university graduate student and newly named Fulbright scholar, received first- and second-degree burns on his back from the blaze. He received hospital treatment.
Before the indictments were announced, Abrams, who maintains a B average in his studies and is a member of the Young Democrats campus group, was contacted at the fraternity house.
He said he was not involved in the fire, did not know who set it and neither the police nor the students who found him standing near the blaze had evidence that he was involved.
Abrams said he was walking to a friend's house sometime after 2:30 a.m. Saturday when he saw a burst of flames in the quad where the three shanties are located.
"I was standing in the parking lot when I saw the fire," said Abrams. "Then I saw one of the people from the shanty start running toward me and I started running." Abrams said he ran in an effort to get away from the commotion. He realized he was being chased, he said, and stopped. When police arrived he was arrested.