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Man who set Champs fire in Tampa gets five years in prison

Terrance Lee Hester Jr. admitted to setting a fire that occurred last year during disturbances in Tampa.
A Champs store was set ablaze Sunday, May 31, 2020, during riots in Tampa. Terrance Lee Hester Jr. admitted to a federal arson charge for his role in setting the fire.
A Champs store was set ablaze Sunday, May 31, 2020, during riots in Tampa. Terrance Lee Hester Jr. admitted to a federal arson charge for his role in setting the fire. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 28
Updated Jul. 28

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

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

The five-year term was the mandatory minimum sentence, and the penalty that a federal prosecutor sought. It was also a punishment that U.S. District Judge Thomas Barber said was appropriate, noting Hester’s youth and lack of a serious criminal history, but also the severity of the crime. The fire resulted in an estimated $1.2 million in property damage.

“There really is no place in a civilized society for this type of stuff,” Barber said. “It just can’t be tolerated, it shouldn’t be tolerated.”

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

Nationwide and local demonstrations were a daily occurrence throughout the late spring and summer last year after the murder of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Although the vast majority of protests were peaceful, a few early demonstrations in Tampa devolved into looting, vandalism and clashes with police.

Riots gripped the city May 30 and 31, 2020. That night, 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 Sports store and neighboring businesses at 2831 E Fowler Ave.

Hester was seen on video tossing a flaming white cloth through a broken window at the Champs store, according to federal prosecutors. He was later seen carrying a burning palm frond toward the store’s open back door. The building became engulfed in flames.

Images of fire consuming the building made it one of that night’s most memorable and stunning criminal acts.

Police SWAT officers guard firefighters as they respond to the Champs Sports store after the building was set ablaze Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa.
Police SWAT officers guard firefighters as they respond to the Champs Sports store after the building was set ablaze Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

In court, Hester apologized. He told the judge he knew what he did was wrong. He said what happened was “a peaceful protest that just got out of hand.”

Judge Barber asked what he was thinking.

“Really, I wasn’t thinking,” Hester said.

The judge asked again, saying he was trying to understand what went through his mind, whether it was a matter of succumbing to peer pressure or something else.

“I guess, everybody was just acting crazy, making it seem right,” Hester said.

State prosecutors in Hillsborough County charged 120 people with 265 separate crimes related to the riots, including burglary and grand theft.

Federal prosecutors pursued a case against Hester, who Tampa police later identified as the man seen tossing flaming objects into the Champs store. He was seen later the same night as looting occurred 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 the number 6 on the back.

One of Hester’s relatives had played volleyball for Bloomingdale High School and was wearing the jersey that belonged to a third relative. The relatives are not named in federal court records. But Hester’s father, Terrence Lee Hester, 38, faces a burglary charge related to looting at the Champs store. The younger Hester also faces a burglary charge in state court related to the Champs break-in.

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

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

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

“You’ll see change if you do it the right way,” he said. “We’ve made strides in this country. We’re still making strides.”