FARGO, N.D. – North Dakota authorities have charged a Minnesota man with felony arson in a fire that heavily damaged a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, though investigators don't yet know what led to the attack.
Matthew Gust, 25, of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, was arrested at a Super 8 motel in Fosston, Minnesota, shortly before midnight Monday, Polk County sheriff's officials said in a statement. Gust was booked into a Crookston, Minnesota, jail, the statement said.
Court documents don't list an attorney for Gust who could comment on his behalf, and numerous calls to the jail on Tuesday didn't go through.
The fire early on Dec. 7 caused an estimated $90,000 in damage to the Juba Coffee House. It happened three days after vandals spray-painted what some have described as a Nazi-like symbol on the business, along with the words "go home."
Dozens of people of different faiths showed up for a candlelight ceremony outside the cafe a day after the fire. The FBI is investigating the blaze.
Grand Forks Police Lt. Derek Zimmel said Tuesday that investigators do not know if the vandalism and the fire are connected and have not determined a motive for the blaze.
"And I don't think we'll have one definitively until we're able to sit down and talk to Mr. Gust," Zimmel said. "A lot of that will depend on his willingness to do so."
Zimmel warned residents about jumping to conclusions.
"There are a lot of different ways the graffiti can be interpreted and a lot of different motivations and intentions behind the fire," he said. "We're not assuming anything to be factual until we can prove it to be factual."
The charge against Gust carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. Court documents show he has previous felony convictions for terrorizing, simple assault and preventing arrest for a 2011 incident in which he was accused of threatening staff at a Grand Forks adult entertainment center and assaulting a police officer.
Timothy Purdon, a former U.S. attorney in North Dakota, said the FBI doesn't often telegraph its investigations, but in this case he believes it sends the right message to the Muslim-American community in Grand Forks.
"It's really important to the community in Grand Forks to know not only that the arson is being investigated, but that the FBI is looking at any possible civil rights violations," said Purdon, now a partner at Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan.