A 29-year-old man admitted in federal court Tuesday that he set 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 racial injustice protests last spring.
Derrick Weatherbe, of Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to one count of arson of a building used in interstate commerce — a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. He could be sent to prison for as many as 20 years at a sentencing hearing scheduled for October.
As one of the first of defendants to admit his guilt to federal crimes tied to the unrest that erupted across the city after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Weatherbe’s ultimate punishment could prove revealing on how harshly authorities intend to penalize those involved in the tumult.
Almost all of the more than a dozen defendants federally indicted in Philadelphia so far are accused of capitalizing on the moment to rob local stores, blow up ATMs, or torch police cars in what they’ve described as acts of civil defiance.
But in announcing each new case, prosecutors have carefully drawn a distinction between those charged with crimes and the vast majority of demonstrators who peacefully filled city streets during a week of protests last spring.
Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they used facial recognition software to identify Weatherbe from surveillance footage from the ransacked Lowe’s at 1500 N. 50th St. in the ParkWest Town Center shopping plaza last year.
And, once they had his name, they tracked down his Facebook account, where he had livestreamed himself committing the crime.
Days later, he posted for sale several items — including an air compressor, an outdoor wall lantern, and a door-lock set with identifying stickers still attached — that agents were able to trace back to the hardware store. In one of the posts, he noted that large chain stores had insurance that would cover losses from the unrest.
The surveillance footage showed Weatherbe — wearing a black bandanna with yellow smiley faces and a T-shirt with the word Hustle on the front — pushing a cartful 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 bathroom-fixtures aisle on fire using a canister of accelerant, a container of tiki-torch fuel, and a lighter he had stolen from the store. He fled the store as the conflagration erupted, 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.
That same night, another man driving a forklift stolen from the Lowe’s used it to help smash through the windows of a neighboring Wells Fargo branch and haul away a vault containing $104,000.
Prosecutors charged two men in connection with that crime — Xavier Nolley-Hall, 19, and Raphael Shaw, 22, both of Philadelphia. The men have both since pleaded guilty and been released from federal custody after serving prison terms of eight and 11 months, respectively.
In both cases, the “time served” sentences imposed by U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearney this year stood at the low-end or slightly below the 10 to 16 months prosecutors had requested.
Weatherbe will face significantly more time at his sentencing before U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter later this year, if only because of the five-year mandatory minimum tied to the arson charge to which he pleaded guilty Tuesday.
His attorney, Jeffrey Azzarano, declined to comment on the case.