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Tampa man pleads guilty to setting Champs blaze

The burning of a Champs Sports store occurred during riots last May in Tampa.
A Champs Sports store on Fowler Avenue was set ablaze on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa.
A Champs Sports store on Fowler Avenue was set ablaze on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 30
Updated Mar. 30

TAMPA — The man prosecutors say was responsible for one of the most stunning criminal acts to occur amid a night of rioting last May in Tampa pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal arson charge.

Terrance Lee Hester Jr. appeared Tuesday morning in a Tampa federal courtroom and quietly admitted he started a fire at the Champs Sports store at 2381 E Fowler Ave. Damage from the blaze totaled $1.2 million.

Hester’s guilty plea came with no guarantees about sentencing. The charge carries a minimum of five and a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Hester, 20, wore a mask and an orange uniform with the word “inmate” stamped on the back as he sat beside his federal public defender. He spoke softly, delivering a polite refrain of “yes, your honor” to a series of questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Tuite.

Terrance Lee Hester, Jr., 20, is seen here in a booking photo from previous arrest.
Terrance Lee Hester, Jr., 20, is seen here in a booking photo from previous arrest. [ Pinelllas County Sheriff's Office ]

He opted to let a federal district judge determine his sentence, rather than try to negotiate a deal with prosecutors. His lawyer, Howard Anderson, said it was best option.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sinacore told the judge that the government had not extended a plea offer because they were not willing to make a deal that didn’t include the mandatory minimum penalty.

The prosecutor read a summary of the crime and the investigation that led to Hester’s arrest. The judge asked Hester if he disagreed with anything that had been said.

“No, sir,” Hester replied.

Nationwide and local demonstrations were a daily occurrence throughout the late spring and summer last year, as the civic-minded spoke out against injustice and racial oppression in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The vast majority of protests in the Tampa Bay area were not violent, but a few early demonstrations devolved into looting, vandalism and clashes with police.

Most memorable were the widespread riots of May 30 and 31. That evening, people hurled objects at police officers and sheriff’s deputies, and broke into and stole from businesses. A Mobil station on Busch Boulevard burned. So did the Champs store and its neighboring businesses.

Tampa police obtained video which appeared to show a shirtless man tossing a flaming white cloth through a broken window. The same man was seen about 20 minutes later carrying a burning palm frond toward the store’s open back door, according to court records. The building became engulfed in flames.

The scene at the Champs Sports, 2381 East Fowler Ave, that was destroyed along with the Saigon Bay Vietnamese restaurant last May in Tampa.
The scene at the Champs Sports, 2381 East Fowler Ave, that was destroyed along with the Saigon Bay Vietnamese restaurant last May in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Tampa police later identified the man in the videos as Hester. He was seen later the same evening as looting occurred at Charlie’s Market at 2815 E Sligh Ave., about four miles south of Champs, according to court records. Tampa police focused on video of a man who was seen with him, who wore a sleeveless jersey with the word “Bloomingdale” on the front, and a name and the number 6 on the back.

They learned that one of Hester’s relatives had played volleyball for Bloomingdale High School and was wearing the jersey that belonged to a third relative, according to court records.

Neither relative is named in federal court records. But records show that his father, Terrence Lee Hester, 38, also faces a burglary charge in state court related to looting that occurred at the Champs store.

People who know the younger Hester reviewed the images and identified him as the person throwing the flaming object into Champs, according to court records.

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Hester in New York in July. After his arrest, he admitted to investigators that he was the person seen on the video, according to court records.

Hester was the most prominent among dozens of arrests that resulted from the riots. In addition to the federal case, he faces a pending burglary charge in state court related to the Champs break-in.