Crime, Law and Justice

Twin Cities man first to be sentenced for arson from May unrest

A man stands with a camera in the back of a burning Wells Fargo
A man stands with a camera in the back of a Wells Fargo branch as flames start to spread after it was set on fire during a riot that broke out over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 29. Federal prosecutors have charged 14 people with setting fires across the Twin Cities and say more are coming.
Chris Juhn for MPR News file

Updated: Dec. 11, 10:56 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 10, 4:39 p.m.

A judge this week sentenced a Twin Cities man to 6 1/2 years in federal prison for setting fire to a Dakota County government building. Fornandous Cortez Henderson, 33, of Savage, Minn., was the first person to be sentenced for setting fires during the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

According to court documents, Henderson and his alleged accomplice, Garrett Patrick Ziegler, 25, of Long Lake, Minn., set fire to the Dakota County Western Service Center in Apple Valley on May 29 using Molotov cocktails.

In his guilty plea, Henderson admitted that he set the fire because he’d made court appearances there on unrelated charges and because he was angry at law enforcement over Floyd’s death.

Apple Valley police extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived, but the building’s sprinklers caused extensive damage. Officers arrested the two nearby after Ziegler dropped his key and police traced it to his vehicle.

Henderson and Ziegler are among 14 people to face federal arson charges in connection with the unrest. Federal prosecutors can charge arson cases if the crimes involve interstate commerce, which applies to nearly every modern business. Aiding and abetting arson carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, and there’s no parole in the federal system.

While U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald said Wednesday that she expects to file additional cases as investigators hand over evidence, the cases her office has charged so far are tied to only eight of the dozens of fires set in the Twin Cities over the three days of rioting that caused an estimated $500 million in damage. In Minneapolis alone, Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said there were 84 calls for service.

Only one arson suspect, Matthew Lee Rupert of Galesburg, Ill., is from outside Minnesota. Two are from St. Paul, one is from Minneapolis, seven are from Twin Cities suburbs, and the others are from Staples, Brainerd and Rochester.

Federal investigators relied heavily on video evidence. In some cases, it was recorded by the suspects themselves and posted to social media. Rupert, who has pleaded not guilty, allegedly had his camera rolling for nearly two hours when he entered a Sprint store on Lake Street, asked for lighter fluid and said, “I lit it on fire.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used security camera video and tips from the public to identify suspects in fires set at Great Health Nutrition and Enterprise Rent-a-Car on University Avenue in St. Paul.

Four men are charged in connection with the fire at the 3rd Precinct police station in south Minneapolis. One pleaded guilty in November, and two others are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

In addition to the arson cases, federal prosecutors have also filed charges against three alleged members of the Boogaloo Bois, a white supremacist group that hopes to foment another civil war.

Michael Solomon, 30, of New Brighton, Minn., and Benjamin Ryan Teeter, 22 of Hampstead, N.C., are each charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Prosecutors say the men told an informant posing as a member of Hamas that they wanted to work as mercenaries.

A third alleged Boogaloo member, Ivan Harrison Hunter of Boerne, Texas, is facing a federal riot charge after investigators say he fired a rifle at the 3rd Precinct police station as the building burned.

In addition to the federal cases, 91 others are facing state felony charges for looting. Hennepin County prosecutors have charged 35 people, mostly with third-degree burglary. Another 56 are facing charges in Ramsey County. One man, Jaleel Stallings, 28, of St. Paul is accused of attempted murder for allegedly shooting at police on Lake Street on May 30.

One widely circulated incident has yet to materialize into any charges. A video that spread on social media during the unrest showed a man carrying an umbrella and wearing a gas mask breaking windows at a Lake Street AutoZone before it was set on fire. A Minneapolis police investigator identified the man in a search warrant last July and said he was a member of a white supremacist gang. But so far prosecutors have not charged him with anything.

During the civil unrest following Floyd’s killing, Gov. Tim Walz and other public officials blamed out-of-state agitators for fomenting the chaos and destruction. But most of the defendants in the state cases are from Minneapolis and St. Paul; only three are from out of state. As with the federal cases, the crimes charged represent only a fraction of the total committed.

Several people have pleaded guilty and prosecutors dismissed at least two state cases after the defendants agreed to participate in restorative justice efforts. However, because of pandemic-related safety measures at courthouses, most of the cases are still pending.

Correction (Dec. 11, 2020): An earlier version of this story misidentified Dakota County Western Service Center. The story has been updated.

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