Man, 20, sentenced to 15 years for arson amid Baltimore rioting

A 20-year-old man who was seen in widely circulated photos squirting lighter fluid on a pile of propane cylinders during the rioting in Baltimore in April 2015 was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison.

Donta Betts of Baltimore pleaded guilty in March to making a destructive device near the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues on April 27, 2015. He also pleaded guilty to shooting a woman in the leg over a $20 drug deal on July 2, 2015, federal prosecutors said in court Friday.


"Donta Betts engaged in arson, looting, assault and other mayhem during the Baltimore riots," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. He said Betts' actions around the city during the riots included looting and throwing rocks at police officers.

In an email, Rosenstein said the case was not just about what happened during the riots, but also about the increase in violence across the city last year.


"This man was an armed drug dealer, and because he was carrying a gun, he used it to try to kill a woman over a $20 drug debt," Rosenstein said. "Too many of the 344 murders and 700 nonfatal shootings last year were over similar pointless beefs. That is what happens when criminals are allowed to carry loaded guns."

During Friday's hearing, prosecutor Matthew Maddox argued that Betts should receive a 16-year sentence, two years longer than guidelines suggest, because Betts "wasn't an average rioter."

Maddox described Betts as having "sheer hate and contempt" for police officers, and said he was engaging in the riots for the sake of lawlessness.

According to the criminal complaint, Betts told investigators, "I figured I did all this because that was my period of time to go wild on the police."

Betts was "an example of what he wanted other rioters to be," Maddox said.

He argued that Betts should face a longer sentence to send a message that such disregard for police will not be tolerated.

Betts' attorney, Shari Heather Silver, asked the judge to consider Betts' youth and his "cognitive limitations." She described her client as a "scared, remorseful individual" who is functionally on the same level as a child. Silver said she has noticed an emotional decline in Betts since working with him and at times has seen him fighting back tears.

Silver also noted that Betts was one of thousands of young people who participated in the rioting.


"He cannot be held responsible for everyone else's conduct," she said.

Betts is the fifth person federal prosecutors have charged with arson during the riots, which occurred just hours after the funeral for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old from West Baltimore who died of a severe spinal cord injury sustained in police custody.

Appearing in federal court wearing red scrubs, Betts told the judge, "I'm very sorry for my bad decision making." He also apologized to the people he might have hurt that day.

During the hearing, two Baltimore and two Montgomery County police officers described the fear they felt responding to the riots.

Lt. Peter Davidov of the Montgomery County Special Events Response Team said his unit was sent to Pennsylvania and North avenues, which became a center for the riots. They were asked to stop looters at the CVS and other stores, but he said they had to wait because of the incendiary devices that were being used.

Davidov and other officers waited until the device Betts created exploded, he said, adding that they had gear to protect them from flying rocks but not from an explosion.


"His actions had a significant impact on us," he said. "I personally felt very vulnerable."

Baltimore police Lt. Chris O'Ree also was among the officers in a line near the CVS who waited until after the explosion to begin trying to control the situation.

"It was absolutely a terrifying scene," he said.

Maddox showed the court several videos of Betts and his actions during the riots. He presented images of Betts and others throwing rocks at police officers near Mondawmin Mall.

He showed video of Betts with a group trying to push over a Maryland Transit Administration police van and, later, an MTA police cruiser parked in front of the van. Maddox said Betts was the leader and was trying to get others to engage in lawlessness.

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At one point, Maddox said, video of Betts showed him trying to set a Baltimore police cruiser on fire by stuffing incendiary materials into the gas tank, and later stealing personal hygiene items from the CVS and other stores that night.


Prosecutors said that two months later, Betts shot a woman who previously had purchased heroin from him, for which he expected $40 but only received $20. Betts shot the woman in the leg while she was seated in a vehicle with another person. She drove herself to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Prosecutors said that in later jailhouse phone calls to a friend, Betts used the victim's name while asking a friend to try to get the victim to sign an affidavit stating that Betts did not shoot her. Prosecutors said he admitted to the shooting during the same call.

After the hearing, Betts was led away in handcuffs. Outside the courthouse, his mother cried while two other women and Betts' attorneys tried to console her.

"Oh, my God!" she screamed, bracing herself against the wall outside the courtroom.