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Man says he fought crime with fire

(ran ET, LT editions of National)

A churchgoing former bodyguard charged with arson testified Thursday that he torched an abandoned house used by junkies and prostitutes because police ignored crime in his mostly black neighborhood.

As in the movies, where vigilantes attempt to take back their communities, Samuel Mohammed, a muscular 6 feet 3 and 312 pounds, kicked down a door of the boarded-up house, spread lighter fluid and set it ablaze in September.

But unlike Hollywood, the 33-year-old is charged with arson and burglary. He faces at least five years in prison if convicted in a trial expected to go to the jury today.

Mohammed testified that he burned down the unoccupied house, which contained an old mattress and a few pieces of junk furniture and was frequented by crack users and prostitutes. Mohammed said he never considered trying to cover up the crime.

Asked why he set fire to the house, Mohammed said police rarely investigated crime in the neighborhood.

"If there was no shooting or someone dying, the police wouldn't stop," he said. "I'm saying, who's really guilty here?"

Mohammed, who wore a sleeveless, military-style combat uniform, was often rambling and incoherent as he spoke of fulfilling God's will. But he was eloquent when he talked about police protection for wealthy white neighborhoods and poor black ones.

"There is a disproportionate number of murders and AIDS cases in American black communities," he said. "This community was on the verge of self-destruction.

"If I'm convicted of being a criminal . . . you will be saying to this nation: "You don't give a damn about suffering.' "

Prosecutors have said they cannot allow vigilantism even when it stems from the best intentions.

The five white and three black jurors appeared to be bored at times but leaned forward attentively when Mohammed addressed the plight of many black neighborhoods.

"We were either going to do something or watch our children and our community die," he said.

Mohammed, who says he is a minister, testified that he counseled young people who hung around a coin laundry he had been hired to protect.

His neighborhood is about 10 blocks from West Palm Beach's $25-million courthouse, which overlooks million-dollar yachts and mansions.

Mohammed said setting fire to the crack house was a sacrifice for neighbors, who would not go to police for fear of retribution from drug dealers.

One neighbor, Thelma White, testified that once when she called 911 about gunfire in the streets, "All I heard was "How old are you? What's your name? Where were you born?' "

She said it was like being interviewed for a census and that police didn't respond.

A defense attorney asked her what the neighborhood was like.

"Vietnam," said the 80-year-old white-haired woman. "Drugs, prostitution and robbery. A lot of shooting."

Asked what she thought of Mohammed, she said: "A Christian man. I wish we had more like him."