Man who set Tampa Fields on fire gets five years in prison


TAMPA – The man who admitted to setting a sporting goods store north of Tampa on fire last year during a night of riots was sentenced to five years in federal prison on Wednesday.

Terrance Lee Hester Jr. was also sentenced to three years of surveillance after his release. Hester, 21, pleaded guilty in March to a federal arson charge.

The five-year sentence was the mandatory minimum sentence and the sentence requested by a federal prosecutor. It was also a punishment that U.S District Judge Thomas Barber declared appropriate, noting Hester’s youthfulness and lack of serious criminal history, but also the seriousness of the crime. The fire caused property damage estimated at $ 1.2 million.

“There really isn’t a place in a civilized society for this stuff,” Barber said. “It just cannot be tolerated, it should not be tolerated.”

Terrance Lee Hester, Jr., seen here in a booking photo of an earlier arrest in Pinellas County, was sentenced to five years in prison for starting the fire that destroyed a Champs Sports store in Tampa on the 31st May 2020. [ Pinelllas County Sheriff’s Office ]

National and local protests occurred daily in late spring and summer last year following the murder of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Although the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, a few early protests in Tampa turned into looting, vandalism and clashes with police.

Riots hit the city on May 30 and 31, 2020. That night, people threw objects at police officers and sheriff’s deputies and broke into and robbed businesses. A Mobil station on Busch Boulevard burned down.

The same goes for the Champs Sports store and neighboring businesses at 2831 E Fowler Ave.

Hester was seen on video throwing a flaming white rag through a broken window in the Champs store, according to federal prosecutors. He was then seen carrying a burning palm leaf towards the store’s open back door. The building was devastated by flames.

The footage of fire consuming the building made it one of the most memorable and astonishing criminal acts of that night.

SWAT police officers keep watch on firefighters as they respond to the Champs Sports store after the building burned down on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa.
SWAT police officers keep watch on firefighters as they respond to the Champs Sports store after the building burned down on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

In court, Hester apologized. He told the judge he knew what he had done was wrong. He said what had happened was “a peaceful protest which has just gotten out of hand.”

Judge Barber asked him what he was thinking.

“Really, I didn’t think so,” Hester said.

The judge asked again, saying he was trying to figure out what was going through his mind, whether it was succumbing to peer pressure or something else.

“I guess everyone was acting like crazy, which just seemed right,” Hester said.

Hillsborough County state prosecutors have charged 120 people with 265 separate riot related crimes, including burglaries and large-scale robberies.

Federal prosecutors continued a case against Hester, who Tampa police later identified as the man seen throwing flaming objects into the Champs store. He was seen later the same night that the looting took place at Charlie’s Market at 2815 E Sligh Ave., according to court records. A man with him wore a sleeveless jersey with the word “Bloomingdale” on the front and a name and number 6 on the back.

One of Hester’s parents had played volleyball for Bloomingdale High School and wore the jersey that belonged to a third parent. Relatives are not named in federal court records. But Hester’s father, Terrence Lee Hester, 38, faces a burglary charge related to the looting of the Champs store. Young Hester also faces a burglary charge in state court related to the Fields break-in.

None of the business owners or franchisees affected by the fire spoke at the sentencing hearing and the Tampa Bay Times’ efforts to reach some of them after the hearing were unsuccessful.

Hester’s attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Howard Anderson, noted that Hester was involved in a protest against Floyd’s death earlier in the evening, but that he “went extremely, extremely too far.”

The lawyer alluded to a lack of good advice in Hester’s life. He mentioned that his own son had participated in protests last year, but had advised him beforehand not to go too far. Speaking after court, Anderson reiterated the advice he had given.

“You will see the change if you do it the right way,” he said. “We have made progress in this country. We are still making progress. “

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