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Press Release

Charleston Man Sentenced to 5 Years in Federal Prison for Arson

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of South Carolina

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Shabazz Akeem Isiah Watson, 27, of Saint Stephen, was sentenced to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to arson during the protests and riots that occurred in Downtown Charleston on May 30 and 31, 2020.

Evidence presented to the court showed that at 10:33 pm on May 30, 2020, during a protest that turned violent following the death of George Floyd, Watson entered a wine bar on King Street. Watson took several paper menus from the counter, set them on fire with a lighter, and placed them under a wooden barstool. Watson repeated this process multiple times until the fire grew. There were multiple individuals inside the business, but Watson was solely responsible for starting the fire.

Watson moved on, and at 11:09 pm, he entered a retail clothing store on King Street. Watson ran to the back of the store and lit merchandise and clothing on fire. Watson then quickly exited. Before the fires grew out of control, another individual entered the store and used a fire extinguisher to put the fires out.

At 11:55 pm, Watson entered a paint store on Meeting Street. He lit a cardboard display on fire and quickly exited the store.

Finally, on May 31, 2020, at 12:55 am, Watson entered a retail store on Meeting Street. Watson approached a row of merchandise and lit several items on fire. Watson then walked to the paper towel/toilet paper row and lit several more items on fire. The fires grew rapidly and eventually burned the entire building and everything inside, resulting in the business remaining closed for several months during repairs.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will defend the right of every South Carolinian to peacefully protest and to protest without threats to their physical safety,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs. “Those who use protests as cover for violent acts that endanger our community will be held accountable. We are grateful to ATF, the Charleston Police Department, and the Charleston Fire Department, whose thorough and professional investigations brought this arsonist to justice.”

“It was unfortunate to see individuals take advantage of the protests occurring at the time to cause harm and major damage to the community,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge Bennie Mims. “Through a determined and collaborative effort, we are seeing those individuals face the consequences of their dangerous actions.”

“In pursuing such an extraordinarily complex case, this successful investigation truly came from collaboration among law enforcement partners. The exceptional work done by the dedicated detectives, analysts, and officers from the Charleston Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the United States Attorney’s Office to garner this indictment against someone who terrorized our city is nothing short of remarkable,” said Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Jack Weiss. “I want to thank everyone who was involved in this case and who dedicated their time, energy, and expertise every single day. They reviewed countless hours of video from citizens and business owners, shared information, and followed up on innumerable leads, ultimately culminating in a successful investigation and conviction. I’d also like to thank the community, the Mayor, and our city council for their continued and unwavering support. Finally, I’d like to thank the Charleston Fire Department whose members stood by law enforcement and ensured everyone’s safety.”

United States District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Watson to 5 years in prison, to be followed by a 3-year term of court-ordered supervision. There is no parole in the federal system. All told, Watson caused $2,415,510.75 in damage to the four businesses. Watson was ordered to pay restitution in that full amount as part of his sentencing.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Charleston Police Department, and Charleston Fire Department investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Lietzow prosecuted the case.



Brook Andrews, First Assistant United States Attorney, U.S. Attorney’s Office,, 803-929-3000

Updated June 7, 2023

Violent Crime