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Plea Bargain OKd : Felony Counts Dropped in Racial Harassment Case

Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors dropped felony charges of witness intimidation and conspiracy Tuesday against a Normal Heights electrician accused of helping his son cover up a racial hate campaign that drove a black family from their neighborhood.

In a plea bargain, Earl Matthew Maas instead pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of federal tax violations during the last two years.

Under terms of the plea agreement, Maas, who was released from federal jail Tuesday after being held 3 1/2 months without bail, will be given credit for time served and will be placed on probation for the tax offenses. He faced a maximum penalty of almost 31 years in prison and $1 million in fines on the race-related charges.

Maas and his son, Michael Eugene Maas, 28, were indicted in May by a federal grand jury on 17 counts related to a series of racist incidents that forced George Shelton, his fiancee, Michelle Washington, and her young son to move in June, 1985, from their home on 35th Street in Normal Heights.

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The incidents scarred the neighborhood atop the hillside burned last summer by the devastating Normal Heights fire. Neighbors rallied to Shelton and Washington’s side, organizing community meetings and a neighborhood watch.

But after the indictment, family friends stood firmly beside Earl Maas, coming to court to testify to his character and scoffing at the portrait painted of him by prosecutors, who described him as a danger to the community.

Michael Maas is scheduled for trial later this month on charges that he deprived the black family of their civil rights and then sought to block a federal investigation by intimidating and suborning perjury from grand jury witnesses.

He already is serving a three-year state prison term for using a bat to break both arms of his girlfriend, Deana Tolentino, during a fight in May, 1985. He also is charged in San Diego County Superior Court with an April, 1985, assault on two black men at a Normal Heights convenience store.

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The federal indictment says Michael Maas--who like his father lived around the corner from Shelton and Washington--placed a burning cross on the family’s lawn in October, 1984, a few weeks after they moved into the neighborhood. Two weeks later, it alleges, he sent the family a racist hate letter. Then in April, 1985, he allegedly set the couple’s truck on fire in the driveway of their home.

Earl Maas was accused of being an accessory after the fact and obstructing justice by hiding evidence that implicated his son and terrorizing a potential witness in the case. Prosecutors said he intimidated the witness, Patrick Drew Irwin, by placing a loaded, cocked pistol in his mouth, and ordered Irwin at gunpoint to make sure Tolentino did not cooperate with the investigation.

Maas denied the allegations during a series of hearings at which federal prosecutors and investigators convinced U.S. Magistrate Harry McCue and later U.S. District Judge Earl Gilliam to keep him in jail without bail as a potential threat to the community and to the government’s witnesses.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Asst. U.S. Atty. Lynne Lasry told Gilliam that prosecutors had not changed their position on Earl Maas’s involvement in the case. She warned Maas, too, that if any witnesses in the case against his son were harassed, intimidated, injured or killed, prosecutors would assume he was involved.

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Defense attorney Michael Pancer said Maas pledged not to have any contact with people involved with the case against his son.

“We hope and pray nobody does anything while Mr. Maas is out (of jail), because he knows the government will blame him for it,” Pancer said.

Lasry declined after the hearing to comment on why the race-related charges against Earl Maas were being dropped, except to note that his son all along has faced the most serious charges in the case.

Though Lasry said she had informed the black family of the plea bargain, she declined to say how they reacted. The family could not be reached for comment.

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Pancer said Maas, a self-employed electrician, was pleased with the disposition of the case. Attorney Mario Conte, who represents Michael Maas, said plea discussions were continuing on the son’s behalf.

“It looks like a fairly good deal for the father,” he said.


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