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Rochester man sentenced to federal prison for Minneapolis arson that killed another man

Montez Terriel Lee Jr. was sentenced Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in U.S. District Court in St. Paul to 120 months in prison.

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ST. PAUL — The Rochester man charged with burning down a Minneapolis pawn shop in the days after the murder of George Floyd vowed on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, that he will become a better person.

The words came as Montez Terriel Lee Jr. was sentenced in U.S. District Court in St. Paul to 120 months in prison.

“I refuse to not learn from this experience and hope to make something positive from it,” Lee said. “This moment in life doesn't define who I am, but it can help mold me into the person I want to become.”

In handing down the sentence, Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright granted a variance from sentencing guidance which outlined a 235- to 240-month sentence.

“You are more than the person who celebrated your actions on social media as if there was anything worth celebrating. You are more than the person that destroyed that business by fire,” Wright said. “You are more than the person who set that fire that killed a man.”

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“And no matter how upset you may have been and you may currently be, you are alive today. You have a future,” she said. “The victim of that fire does not. So while there are no excuses for your actions on May 28, 2020, you have a chance to move forward and live a productive life. You have a chance to move forward and contribute to a better life for yourself, to a better life for those that you love and to a better life for others. I hope that you use your prison term to address the struggles that you have, Mr. Lee, and to commit to treating and working through your depression, your anxiety, your PTSD and I hope that you also realize how your actions impact others.”

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Lee pleaded guilty in July 2021 to a single count of arson. He admitted to starting the fire on May 28, 2020, that destroyed the Max It Pawn Shop at 2726 E. Lake St. According to court documents, Lee did not bring the gas can, but found it already inside the pawn shop. The fire at the Pawn Shop occurred the same night the Minneapolis Third Precinct building was destroyed by fire.

The body of 30-year-old Oscar Lee Stewart was found inside the rubble of the burned-out pawn shop more than two months after the fire. His remains were sent to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. Stewart’s death was attributed to “probable inhalation of products of combustion and thermal injury (building fire),” prosecutors wrote in their position on sentencing.

While Lee was not directly charged with Stewart’s death, his death did factor into the prison sentence Lee will receive.

Lee’s attorneys argued in written filings for an 88-month prison sentence, stating it would allow him to “have an additional chance at life; to be a father to provide for his community, and to become a law-abiding citizen once again.”

In court Friday morning, attorney Bruce Rivers said that on May 28, 2020, Lee was “caught up in a mass protest against police violence” and that Lee’s actions were not done for personal gain. Both in court and in his written arguments, Rivers stated that Lee had checked to make sure no one was in the building before starting the fire.

Speaking on his own behalf, Lee said he wished he could take back his actions and apologized to Stewart’s family as well as his own and the owner and employees of the pawn shop.

“I was hoping to be another voice added to the cry for change. I wanted to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. Though I don’t stand by my actions, I stand by my reasons behind them,” Lee said citing the deaths of Black people because racial profiling and the demonization of Black skin.

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In written arguments, prosecutors requested a 144-month sentence stating that “the Court’s sentence must account for the fact that Mr. Lee’s crime took Oscar Stewart’s life.”

Stewart’s family made no statement during the hearing, which was held virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A still image, taken from a video, showing a man in a trashed room pouring an accelerant onto the floor.
A still image taken from a video shot on May 28, 2020, inside the Max It Pawn in Minneapolis shows Lee pouring an accelerant around the pawn shop. The photo was included in federal court documents.<br/>
Cutts, Emily

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Calhoun-Lopez said in court Friday that the evidence was clear Lee did not intend to hurt anybody and that “his reasons in this case for setting that fire matter.”

Both in his written arguments and in court, Calhoun-Lopez cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words saying “we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Calhoun-Lopez said he believed that Lee was engaging in King’s words.

A restitution request of $842 was made by Stewart’s family to cover the cost of his cremation, according to Calhoun-Lopez. No request for restitution was made by the pawn shop.

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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