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Jury spares crack house vigilante

A man described by neighbors as a Christian and a community guardian after he admitted burning down a crack house eluded a long prison term when a biracial jury refused to find him guilty Friday of arson and burglary.

The four white and two black jurors found Samuel Mohammed, 35, guilty of the lesser crimes of criminal mischief and trespassing. Assistant State Attorney Tom Lawson said the maximum penalty could be one year in prison.

Mohammed could have received up to nine years in prison if convicted of the more serious charges, Lawson said.

The jury, which took an hour to reach its verdict, appeared to have heeded Mohammed's words when he testified that "if I'm convicted of a being a criminal . . . you will be saying to this nation: You don't give a damn about suffering."

The message from the jury in refusing to find a man guilty of arson, even though he admitted setting a fire, was that "people are fed up with crime, especially crack cocaine," said one of three court-appointed defense attorneys, Sammy Berry Jr.

"I feel great. I'm happy," Mohammed said. Attorneys told him not to comment until after sentencing.

Lawson said he was satisfied with the verdict.

Mohammed testified that in September he set fire to the boarded-up, one-room shack used by drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes because police would not act.

Mohammed told jurors that "it's not a Beaver Cleaver neighborhood. It was like a war zone. It was nothing to see young men . . . crawling for their lives after being shot in the head."

West Palm Beach police Detective Patrick Ross said Mohammed should have handled the drug problems differently.

"He could have called police. He could have called code enforcement," Ross said. "He went about it the wrong way. He took the law in his own hands."

Lionel Weston, part-owner of Robertson's Convenience Store, across the street from the crack house, also thought Mohammed should have worked within the system.

"You can't have these vigilantes," he said. "I see it, too, but I don't light a match and set it on fire. What he did was wrong."

But the 6-foot-3, 312-pound former bodyguard is a hero to many in his neighborhood.

The house "took its sweet time burning, and I was happy to see it," said Hattie Moore, who has lived in the area for 17 years. "I'm scared of drugs. Scared to come out of my house."

Resident John Clayton called Mohammed "a community guardian; you know, always talking to kids. Keeps them out of trouble. He loves children. He loves the elderly.

"He's at church every Sunday. He's always reading his Bible."

Circuit Judge Roger Colton will sentence Mohammed within 30 days. Until then, he will remain free on $15,000 bail. Colton admonished him to avoid trouble until then.

"I won't be burning down any more houses," Mohammed replied, drawing laughter from the three dozen people taking up every seat in the small courtroom.