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Man pleads guilty to setting Somali eatery on fire

FARGO -- Before pleading to a federal hate crime, Matthew Gust paused.But he eventually pleaded to starting a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks on fire, an act some claim was racially charged."Guilty," Gust said.At the hearing, Gust admitted he se...

FARGO - Before pleading to a federal hate crime, Matthew Gust paused.
But he eventually pleaded to starting a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks on fire, an act some claim was racially charged.
“Guilty,” Gust said.
At the hearing, Gust admitted he set fire on Dec. 8 to Juba Coffee House and Restaurant on South Washington Street in Grand Forks with a Molotov cocktail, causing at least $90,000 in damage.
Judge Ralph Erickson first asked the 25-year-old for his plea to the charge of malicious use of explosive materials.
“Guilty,” Gust replied without hesitation.
It’s when Erickson asked his plea to the charge of interference with a federally protected activity that Gust paused.
“You had some hesitation,” Erickson said to Gust. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t like that it’s because of race,” Gust replied.
The charges he pleaded to Thursday in federal court weren’t the charges he originally started out with. First, he was charged with arson, a Class B felony, in Grand Forks District Court. Then, his case moved to federal court, and he was charged with malicious use of explosive materials. Later, a second federal charge was added - use of a destructive device during a crime of violence.
But when he agreed to a plea deal, the prosecution dropped the destructive device charge and replaced it with a federal hate crime: interference with a federally protected activity.
This hate crime law has only been used in one other case in North Dakota since 2011. Designed to prevent denying certain privileges to people based on their race, color, religion or national origin, the law requires special permission to be used.
In Gust’s case, the law protects employees and customers of Juba based on their nationality: Somali. And that’s where some of the hesitation came in Thursday.
It’s not that Gust denied committing the crime, but he doesn’t like it being listed he did this because of the owners’ national origin, Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Healy told Erickson.
Erickson went over the facts of the case again, and Healy commented she could provide additional information from witnesses’ statements that Gust made comments about Somalis at Qdoba, where he was employed. Erickson again asked Gust if he was sure he wanted to plead guilty, and Gust replied he was. Erickson then accepted the plea deal and Gust’s pleas.
He’s scheduled to be sentenced 1:30 p.m. Aug. 29 in Fargo. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison on the first charge and 10 years the second. He would serve those sentences at the same time for a total of 15 years. There is no parole in federal court, but 15 percent of his sentence could be relieved for good behavior.
Gust could appeal his sentence is if he’s sentenced outside the range required by the court or if he proves he had ineffective counsel, Erickson explained. Gust also must pay restitution. The final amount still is being negotiated, Healy said, but it will be at least $90,000. Gust is in custody at Cass County jail. With his sentencing a few months away, Gust’s attorney, Theodore Sandberg, said he plans to file a motion to release into his parent’s custody.

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