A 26-year-old Philadelphia man on Thursday became the sixth person charged with setting police cars ablaze during last summer’s racial injustice protests in Center City.
FBI agents arrested Lester Fulton Smith, 26, in Massachusetts, where he was working, and accused him of playing a role in the arson of a Pennsylvania State Police car ignited by protesters demonstrating May 30 in response to the murder of George Floyd.
Authorities had already charged a Virginia man — Ayoub Tabri, 25 — with igniting the blaze using a road flare stolen from the vehicle.
Charging documents in Smith’s case were spare on details of what role prosecutors believe he played in the incident, whether investigators believe he coordinated with Tabri, or how he was identified by agents.
Prosecutors have said they first flagged Tabri — wearing a black mask and holding a skateboard in one hand and the lit flare in the other — from video shared on social media of the chaotic scene that unfolded that day near the intersection of Broad and Vine Streets, where State Police had amassed to keep the crowd of demonstrators off of I-676.
Two parked police cars came under attack from the crowd, which beat them with a scooter, a hammer, skateboards, a bike lock, crowbars, and hands and fists.
The lit flare Tabri is accused of throwing at one of the cars not only hit it but also a nearby state trooper, whose uniform caught fire, investigators said. The trooper later suffered burns to his hand while reaching into the burning vehicle to retrieve a rifle that had been stored inside.
FBI agents identified Tabri, a restaurant worker in Washington, D.C., by cross-referencing video from the scene with social media photos of the same man — without a mask — shot later outside City Hall.
Tabri confessed to setting the blaze upon his arrest in October, according to court filings in his case. Six others have been arrested on state vandalism charges in connection with the damage to the State Police vehicles.
In a statement Thursday, acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams drew a distinction between Smith and Tabri and the hundreds of “peaceful protesters” who demonstrated in Philadelphia that day.
“Here, the defendants allegedly destroyed a police vehicle, endangering many lives including police officers and peaceful protesters nearby,” she said. “This conduct is not free speech and is not protected by our constitution; rather, it is criminal.”
For his part, Smith looked exhausted while appearing Thursday for his first court appearance via Zoom from a federal detention center in Massachusetts. He yawned repeatedly, rubbing his eyes throughout the proceeding.
But he leaped out of his chair and mouthed “No,” when U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler outlined a mandatory minimum seven-year prison sentence and maximum of 40 years he is facing should he be convicted on the two arson counts with which he has been charged.
Lawyers for others charged with igniting police vehicles in separate incidents May 30 have criticized the decision to charge them — like Smith and Tabri — under federal arson statutes because of that stiff mandatory penalty. They argue that protest-related acts of destruction belong in state court.
Smith will remain in custody pending a bail hearing in Worcester, Mass., scheduled for Wednesday, at which prosecutors have signaled they intend to seek his detention until trial.
An attorney had not been appointed to represent him on the charges in Philadelphia as of Thursday evening.
Four others face federal arson charges in connection with Philadelphia police cars ignited in separate incidents near City Hall that day.
They include prominent activist and social studies teacher Anthony “Ant” Smith, 30, and Khalif Miller, 25, both of Philadelphia, as well as Carlos Matchett, 31, of Atlantic City and Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, a 34-year-old massage therapist from Jenkintown.
All have denied the charges and are awaiting trials scheduled for later this year.