A Rochester man has pleaded guilty to setting a Lake Street pawnshop ablaze during last year's rioting after the death of George Floyd, but he is not admitting that his actions were responsible for the death of a man found inside the business.
Montez T. Lee Jr., 26, admitted in U.S. District Court in St. Paul last week to one count of arson in connection with the fire that engulfed the Max It Pawn store in the 2700 block of E. Lake Street on May 28, 2020, three days after Floyd died while in police custody in south Minneapolis.
Surveillance video footage showed Lee pouring an accelerant around the shop and lighting it. A second video captured Lee standing in front of the burning business and saying that they were going to burn it down.
The remains of Oscar Lee Stewart Jr., 30, of Burnsville, were recovered from the rubble nearly two months later. An autopsy conducted by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Stewart died of smoke inhalation and excessive burns.
Lee has not been prosecuted specifically for Stewart's death, and defense attorney Bruce Rivers said Tuesday that his client will present at sentencing evidence from "a competing medical examination" addressing what killed Stewart.
Rivers declined to say more about what that independent examination will reveal, only that "you'll hear it when the judge hears it" during the yet unscheduled sentencing before Judge Wilhelmina Wright.
Rivers also said Lee "prior to lighting the fire looked through the building to make sure no one was there. … He feels terrible."
Those who knew Stewart are unaware of any connection between the two men, and Lee's attorney agreed that the two didn't know each other.
The prosecution chose not to file a charge directly connected to Stewart's death and instead "is going to push for a harsher sentence because the arson resulted in a death," said Tasha Zerna, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors are contending that federal sentencing guidelines call for Lee to receive a prison term ranging from 17½ to 20 years. The defense calculates a term of five years.
In the meantime, Lee remains in federal custody in the Sherburne County jail.
Stewart's death is one two confirmed as connected to the riots in the wake of Floyd's murder by Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer who was convicted this spring and sentenced to a term topping 22 years.
In the other death, John Rieple, owner of Cadillac Pawn and Jewelry at 1538 E. Lake St., was arrested after shooting a man outside of his business, but he was later released and charges have never been filed. Relatives of the victim, Calvin "Chuck" Horton Jr., 43, have cast doubt on the account that Horton was killed while looting the store.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482