Erie Man Charged with Arson for Setting Fire at Erie Coffee Shop during Protest
Erie, Pa. – A federal criminal complaint was filed today charging Melquan Barnett, 28, of Erie, Pennsylvania, with malicious destruction of property using fire or explosives. After a May 30, 2020 gathering of protesters was hijacked, Barnett allegedly set a fire at Ember + Forge, a coffee shop located at 401 State Street in Erie, Pennsylvania.
"The First Amendment does not permit people to use a protest as cover to commit arson, destroy property or incite violence," said U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady. "Any protestors who cross this line should know that we will use every tool at our disposal to find you and prosecute you."
"The FBI is dedicated to upholding the Constitution, including protecting all citizens' rights to peacefully protest," said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Mike Christman. "But when those peaceful protests cross the line into criminal activity, our efforts are focused on identifying and investigating individuals who commit crimes. We will not tolerate that kind of violence at the expense of innocent citizens. We will work with our local partners to pursue federal prosecutions."
"Acts of arson are dangerous crimes and threaten the community," said ATF Philadelphia Field Division Acting Special Agent-in-Charge John Schmidt. "The ATF, along with our law enforcement partners at the FBI and the Erie Police Department, are committed to ensuring that our communities are safe and that those who violate federal arson laws are held accountable. ATF’s role in this investigation was to provide technical expertise as to the origin and cause of the fire and thus determined the fire to be incendiary."
The criminal complaint alleges that on the evening of May 30, 2020, a public disturbance was occurring on State Street and the surrounding area. Video footage from Facebook live and Ember + Forge depict an individual shattering the coffee shop’s window that faces State Street. Then, the videos depict a male – with distinctive hair to the middle of his back wearing a white mask, white shirt, light blue jean jacket, black pants with a red and white striped pattern down the side and red shoes - setting a fire inside of Ember + Forge. The video surveillance footage from Ember + Forge also shows a neck tattoo on the left side of the individual’s neck.
A review of additional Facebook public video footage from the area of State Street near City Hall in Erie on the evening of May 30, 2020, shows the same individual without the mask but wearing identical clothing and shoes. The subject’s face is fully visible in this video footage. Officers of the Erie Police Department have reviewed the video footage and identified Melquan Barnett as the individual depicted in this video footage from State Street on May 30, 2020.
Barnett was taken into federal custody this afternoon in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is scheduled to make his initial appearance on June 4, 2020 before Magistrate Judge Richard A. Lanzillo in U.S. District Court in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The law provides for a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of five years, a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison, and a maximum fine of $250,000.
This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the City of Erie Police Department.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian A. Trabold.
The FBI is urging the public to report suspected arson, use of explosive devices, or violent, destructive acts associated with the otherwise peaceful protests of the last week. Anyone with information can call the FBI at 1-800-CALLFBI (800-225-5324).
The charges contained in the complaint are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.