A Rochester man was sentenced to 120 months in prison Friday for burning down a pawnshop during the George Floyd riots in 2020. That fire killed a father of five, but the person responsible was only ever charged with arson.
Montez Terriel Lee Jr., 26, pleaded guilty in July 2021 to a single count of arson in connection to the May 28, 2020, destruction of Max It Pawn Shop on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Surveillance cameras captured Lee pouring a fire accelerant around the pawnshop and lighting the accelerant on fire.
A second video recorded Lee standing in front of the burning building, fist raised, saying, “[expletive] this place. We’re gonna burn this [expletive] down.”
Inside, a man was living the last moments of his life, but his body wouldn’t be found for another two months. The family spent eight weeks searching for him.
Investigators discovered the remains of 30-year-old Oscar Lee Stewart Jr. on July 20, 2020, in the rubble of Max It Pawn Shop. Three months later, the Hennepin County medical examiner ruled Stewart’s death a homicide.
“This individual died from probable inhalation of products of combustion and thermal injury from an intentional building fire and manner of death is homicide,” states a summary of the autopsy.
According to a GoFundMe, Stewart left behind five kids between the ages of one and 12.
As of now, however, Lee has not faced any charges in connection to Stewart’s death and prosecutors seem uninterested in the idea.
Sentencing guidelines called for a 235-240 month (19.5-20 years) prison sentence, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Calhoun-Lopez argued for 144 months (12 years).
Calhoun-Lopez wrote in court documents:
“Mr. Lee’s motive for setting the fire is a foremost issue. Mr. Lee credibly states that he was in the streets to protest unlawful police violence against black men, and there is no basis to disbelieve this statement. Mr. Lee, appropriately, acknowledges that he ‘could have demonstrated in a different way,’ but that he was ‘caught up in the fury of the mob after living as a black man watching his peers suffer at the hands of police.’ As anyone watching the news world-wide knows, many other people in Minnesota were similarly caught up. There appear to have been many people in those days looking only to exploit the chaos and disorder in the interests of personal gain or random violence. There appear also to have been many people who felt angry, frustrated, and disenfranchised, and who were attempting, in many cases in an unacceptably reckless and dangerous manner, to give voice to those feelings. Mr. Lee appears to be squarely in this latter category. And even the great American advocate for non-violence and social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in an interview with CBS’s Mike Wallace in 1966 that ‘we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.’”
Calhoun-Lopez did express support for a “significant sentence” and acknowledged that Lee’s “assertion that he did not intend to hurt anyone is of little comfort to the family and friends Mr. Stewart left behind.”
But a “significant sentence” is not the same as a “long sentence,” according to Calhoun-Lopez’s logic.
“A long sentence does not appear necessary to deter Mr. Lee from future crime. General deterrence likewise seems to be of limited import here. The events of late May of 2020 were informed by forces that have been present in this country since its inception. General deterrence appears to be of limited relevance given the passions and historical forces at work in the crime,” Calhoun-Lopez wrote.
He also argued that Lee “does not appear to pose a danger to the public,” despite acknowledging Lee’s criminal history.
“Mr. Lee appears to be a thoughtful, intelligent man. He does have a terrible incident of domestic violence in his criminal history, in which he viciously assaulted a woman and ruptured her left eardrum,” said Calhoun-Lopez.
Lee also has prior convictions for burglary, violation of a no-contact order, and theft of property.
Lee’s defense wanted about seven years, but Judge Wilhelmina Wright settled on 10.
“You are more than the person who celebrated your actions on social media as if there was anything worth celebrating. You are more than the person that destroyed that business by fire,” Wright, an Obama appointee, told Lee in court, according to the Rochester Post Bulletin. “You are more than the person who set that fire that killed a man.”