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Tampa man arrested in arson that destroyed Champs during night of unrest

Terrance Lee Hester Jr., 20, is accused of setting the May 31 fire that destroyed the store and caused $1.25 million in damages, federal authorities say.

TAMPA — The man authorities say set fire to the Champs Sports store during a night of unrest in late May has been arrested on a federal arson charge.

Terrance Lee Hester Jr., 20, of Tampa, is now in custody, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He surrendered last week to federal authorities in New York but his arrest wasn’t announced until Monday. The circumstances of his arrest were not released by federal agents.

A complaint released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa outlines the evidence that led a federal magistrate to sign an arrest warrant last week on a charge of damaging or destroying by fire a building used in interstate commerce.

A peaceful organized protest on May 30 “devolved into widespread civil unrest in the area around the location of the Champs store” at 2381 E Fowler Ave. in the University area, the complaint says. The sporting goods store was set ablaze shortly before 1 a.m. on May 31 “during a period of looting and destruction.”

Flames engulfed the Champs store, which is on the northeast end of a strip center, and spread to adjacent businesses. The strip mall is just a mile from the University of South Florida.

The total estimated loss from the fire is $1.25 million, the complaint says.

The protests against police brutality and racial injustice were sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Demonstrations have continued in both Tampa and St. Petersburg and across the nation in the weeks since the Champs store burned down.

While there have been tense moments between protesters and police, incidents involving drivers going through demonstrations and arrests for blocking traffic and resisting arrest, that night in May was the only eruption of major property damage in the bay area.

The Champs Sports store at 2381 E Fowler Ave. burns in the early morning hours of May 31. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Investigators said they reviewed video from surveillance cameras and social media posts that showed a man tossing a piece of flaming white cloth through a broken window of the Champs store. Investigators concluded that this act “caused or contributed to the cause of the fire,” and later identified the man as Hester.

The Tampa Police Department said its officers obtained surveillance video showing Hester was present about an hour later during looting in and around Charlie’s Market at 2815 E Sligh Ave., about four miles from the Champs store. One of the men with Hester at the time was wearing a sleeveless jersey with the word “Bloomingdale” on the front and a name and number on the back.

Investigators say they confirmed the man was a close relative of Hester’s, played volleyball for Bloomingdale High School and was wearing a jersey bearing the name and player number of another relative who also played volleyball for the school, according to the complaint.

A grey Chevy Impala seen in the area of the Champs store and Charlie’s Market that night is registered to the first relative, the complaint says.

Neither relative is named in the complaint.

The Tampa Police Department tweeted this screen grab of surveillance video taken during the May 31 fire at the Champs Sports store at 2381 E Fowler Ave. Investigators used the video to identify the man as Terrance Lee Hester, Jr., 20, according to a federal complaint. [ Tampa Police Department ]

During the first week of July, federal agents and Tampa police investigators made contact with friends and family members of Hester and the first relative.

“Upon presenting these individuals with still photographs obtained from the various recordings, these individuals identified Hester, Jr. and Relative 1,” ATF Special Agent William Grimmer wrote in the complaint.

Grimmer also compared still images of the man tossing the cloth into the store with booking photos of Hester from a May 4 arrest in Pinellas County.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone signed an arrest warrant for Hester on Wednesday. He surrendered to federal authorities in Oswego, N.Y. Hester remains in custody after making an initial appearance in a federal courtroom on Friday afternoon in the Northern District of New York.

Records show Hester has previous arrests in Florida on charges of petty theft, burglary, resisting an officer without violence and driving without a valid license. His family could not be reached for comment Monday. It was not known if he has an attorney.

An aerial view of the destroyed Champs Sports store at 2381 E Fowler Ave., at left, and the heavy damage caused when the flames spread to the adjacent Saigon Bay Vietnamese restaurant during the May 31 incident. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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