Judge in massive arson case cites national security reason to withhold evidence

Prosecutors are claiming that a serial arson case in Sacramento federal court has national security implications and, in a highly unusual ruling, a judge is allowing the government to withhold parts of the evidence from defense lawyers.

Attorneys on both sides declined Monday to comment publicly, but court papers they have filed outline a dispute over the legality of hiding evidence with no obligation to disclose the reasons to the defense team.

The case involves three men charged in February in a 60-count grand jury indictment with plotting to commit multiple arsons for profit between 2009 and 2013.

Jamal Shehadeh, 58, and a relative, Saber Shehadeh, 74, both of Sacramento; Brian Stone, 58, of Elk Grove; and unnamed associates unlawfully collected more than $1.5 million from arson insurance claims, according to the indictment.

The indictment cites seven fires at six commercial buildings in Sacramento and Carmichael. It says Saber Shehadeh owned Tru Value Market and a nearby property, which were destroyed in two of the fires. Stone – the father of French train hero Spencer Stone, who helped thwart a terror attack in August 2015 aboard a Paris-bound train – provided consultant services that included assisting with the insurance claims, it alleges.

Two assistant U.S. attorneys filed a cryptic, four-line notice informing the defense that on Oct. 20 they submitted to U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. a sealed motion seeking an order under the Classified Information Procedures Act.

Five days later – on Oct. 25 – England issued a two-page order that “the government’s motion, memorandum of law, and all accompanying declarations and exhibits … shall not be disclosed to the defense, and shall be sealed.”

The judge found that the information in the motion “implicates the government’s national security and classified information privilege because … its disclosure could cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.”

The order references a sealed “classified order” that specifies the information being withheld from the defense, which means England issued two orders, only one of which is public, and the sealed order will not be available to the defense.

On Friday, three of the four defense lawyers filed a motion asking England to reconsider his ruling. They pointed out that, without knowing the prosecutors’ arguments, they cannot intelligently oppose them. The defense lawyers also noted that four members of the defense team – two lawyers, a paralegal and an investigator – have security clearances equal to the prosecutors.

“The bedrock minimum requirements of due process are notice and an opportunity to be meaningfully heard,” Assistant Federal Defenders Matthew Bockman, Benjamin Galloway and Sean Riordan wrote in the motion for reconsideration. “If the court’s order stands, the defense will not be able to be heard meaningfully on the important question of whether secret evidence may be withheld completely.

“It is undisputed that this case is not a terrorism matter, and that no other national security issue appears on the face of the instant complaint and charges,” the attorneys added.

Although not on the surface a terrorism case, it is an extraordinary one.

“In defiance of all probability, lightning has struck (Jamal) Shehadeh, not once or twice, but at least seven times as charged in the indictment, and nearly 20 times including the uncharged fires,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Anderson wrote in a brief opposing Shehadeh’s release on bail. “When it has struck and businesses associated with Shehadeh have burned to the ground, he has profited. Tellingly, as shown in the indictment, he concealed his profits through nominees and other means. He has prior convictions for grand theft, petty theft, more grand theft, selling liquor to a minor and drug paraphernalia. His employment history is sketchy and closely tied to arson fires. FBI surveillance suggests that he does not really work.”

In his brief opposing bail for Jamal Shehadeh, Anderson wrote that he “is a serial arsonist and insurance fraud(ster) who has evaded prosecution for decades while endangering members of the community. In this criminal endeavor, Shehadeh has been assisted by his reputation within the Sacramento Arabic speaking community for arson and for killing potential prosecution witnesses. This reputation, unfortunately, is based in fact.”

“With each fire,” Anderson warns, “the danger of injury to firefighters and other members of the community increases. There is no reason to believe Shehadeh will stop. He did not stop when investigated for murder and he did not stop when he learned the FBI was investigating him for arson. Only detention can protect the community.

“Witnesses have been reluctant to cooperate with the FBI, citing Shehadeh’s reputation and their fears that he will try to kill them if released,” the brief says. “That reputation and those fears are supported by actual facts that are found in the cold case homicide file for the murder of Tong Fang Huang.”

On Oct. 8, 1996, Tong Fang Huang was murdered with a single shot to the back of the head while she was working at Jim’s Market, a convenience store owned by Shehadeh at 4160 Stockton Blvd.

Anderson’s brief contains a detailed rendition of evidence pointing to Shehadeh as the killer.

Bail for Jamal Shehadeh has twice been denied. Saber Shehadeh and Stone are free on bail.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189