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Man sentenced to 5 years in prison for setting a West Philly Lowe’s ablaze during 2020 unrest

“The problem for you is you undertook a dangerous and meaningless act," U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter said. "It’s a terrible thing to go to jail because you’re such a fool.”

A man pushes a cart loaded with merchandise out of the Lowe's Home Improvement Store during civil unrest at the ParkWest Town Center in West Philadelphia on May 31, 2020.
A man pushes a cart loaded with merchandise out of the Lowe's Home Improvement Store during civil unrest at the ParkWest Town Center in West Philadelphia on May 31, 2020.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

A 31-year-old man was sentenced to five years in federal prison Tuesday for setting fire to a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in West Philadelphia amid the widespread ransacking of businesses that erupted in the city’s Parkside neighborhood during 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Derrick Weatherbe, of Philadelphia, apologized for his actions, saying he wasn’t in the “right set of mind” as he livestreamed himself on Facebook using a container of tiki-torch fuel and a lighter he’d stolen from the store to set the bathroom-fixtures aisle ablaze.

But as she announced Weatherbe’s sentence Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter said she remained baffled by what motivated his crimes.

“What’s the connection between going to the Lowe’s and George Floyd?” she asked, adding later: “The problem for you is you undertook a dangerous and meaningless act … It’s a terrible thing to go to jail because you’re such a fool.”

Weatherbe nodded in agreement. His wife — who earlier in Tuesday’s proceedings said she didn’t realize her husband would have to go to prison — sat quietly sobbing, bent over a bench in the courtroom gallery.

Since the unrest that erupted across the city after Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in May 2020, federal authorities in Philadelphia have accused more than a dozen people of capitalizing on the moment to rob stores, blow up ATMs, or torch police cars.

But while many of those who have been sentenced so far have received punishments at the low end of or below the recommendations by prosecutors and federal sentencing guidelines, Weatherbe’s was one of the stiffest sentences handed down so far.

Because he pleaded guilty last year to one count of arson — a charge that carries a five-year mandatory minimum prison term — Pratter acknowledged her hands were largely tied.

“It’s a fearsome amount of time to spend in jail,” she said. “I do recognize this is a very, very tough sentence, and I think you understand the court’s options.”

Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identified Weatherbe using facial recognition software and surveillance footage from the ransacked Lowe’s at 1500 W. 50th St. in the ParkWest Town Center shopping plaza.

And once they had his name, they tracked down his Facebook account and found the livestream recording of his crimes.

The footage showed Weatherbe — wearing a black bandanna with yellow smiley faces and a T-shirt with the word “hustle” on the front — pushing a cart full of items including light fixtures, power tools, and a chainsaw out of the store to an awaiting car.

Once he was finished, he returned to the store and filmed himself setting the blaze and fleeing the building, pausing only on his way out to steal two bottles of Mountain Dew.

The area was so packed with people taking items from shops at the time that responding firefighters said they had to leave and return with a police escort before they could enter the building to put out the blaze.

“The defendant that day calmly set aflame a warehouse full of people and full of cardboard,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Priya De Souza said in court Tuesday. “It is only by the grace of God that no one was injured or even killed that day.”

When it came time for him to address the judge, Weatherbe offered little by way of explanation. He said only that he’d been involved in a serious car accident months before that had left him with injuries — including brain hemorrhaging — that had left him housebound in recovery and with social media as his only outlet.

“Two years before [the] corona[virus] started, I was locked in a house before everyone else was locked in a house,” he said. “I don’t know if I was naturally blowing off steam that day or whatever, but my intention wasn’t ever to hurt anyone, put anyone in danger, or destroy property, to be honest.”

In addition to the prison term, Pratter ordered Weatherbe to serve three years’ probation, complete 150 hours of community service, and pay roughly $75,000 in restitution to Lowe’s.

“His actions in this case were completely out of character,” Weatherbe’s attorney, Jeffrey Azzarano, said. “He is a caring father who is embarrassed by his behavior and every day regrets the decision that resulted in his arrest.”