Authorities have taken 43-year-old Michael Benkowski into custody on charges of third-degree criminal mischief, third-degree arson, and third-degree burglary in connection with the burning of Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka’s bus. Authorities believe Benkowski intentionally set fir to the candidate’s bus on February 16th while it sat parked outside Baraka’s campaign headquarters.
In an effort to bring the criminal responsible for the mayoral candidate’s bus burning to justice, the Essex County Crime Stoppers Program launched a rewards program back in February, offering $1,000 to anyone with information leading to an arrest and conviction. It’s unclear whether this program played a role in the arrest of Benkowski.
Newark police took Benkowski into custody last Friday at his apartment complex in Newark. Benkowski’s bail is set at $100,000.
“He was arrested earlier this morning by members of the Prosecutor’s office and agents of the FBI fugitive task force,” said Thomas Fennelly, Chief Assistant Prosecutor for Newark. “He was arrested in Newark without incident at an apartment on Broad Street.“
So, what drove the 43-year-old Newark resident to allegedly set the mayoral candidate’s bus ablaze? While there’s been no official statement by Benkowski or his legal council, authorities believe it was a ploy to help boost the poll ratings for another candidate. According to press reports, Benkowski was a paid canvasser for Assistant State Attorney General Shavar Jeffries, who was a direct opponent of mayoral candidate Ras Baraka. Benkowski was paid at least $450 by Jefferies back in December, according to public financial documents of the campaign.
Following the bus-burning incident, Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka took to his Facebook page to show the community that scare tactics won’t work. Baraka published several photos of the burned bus, which have since been ‘liked’ and shared hundreds of times, along with the following message:
“The popular campaign bus that prominently featured Ras J. Baraka’s image and campaign slogan “Believe in Newark”, was set on fire early Sunday morning. Last week Anibal Ramos and Darrin Sharrif, dropped out as candidates making it into a two-person race. The “Baraka Bus” as it was affectionately known by campaign volunteers was used to take the candidate and volunteers throughout the city to meet with residents in every neighborhood. SCARE TACTICS WONT WORK. The people of Newark will not be denied victory on May13th! WHEN I BECOME MAYOR WE BECOME MAYOR.”