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Baltimore man, 21, charged in burning of North Avenue liquor store during April rioting

Baltimore firefighters battle one of many blazes set around the city on April 27, the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. On Thursday, officials announced that a 21-year-old man was charged in connection with one of the fires.
Baltimore firefighters battle one of many blazes set around the city on April 27, the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. On Thursday, officials announced that a 21-year-old man was charged in connection with one of the fires. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

A 21-year-old Baltimore man has been charged in the burning of a West Baltimore liquor store during the riots of April, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Prosecutors said Darius Raymond Stewart was captured on surveillance cameras "intentionally setting multiple fires" at the Fireside North lounge and liquor store in the 2200 block of W. North Ave.

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Fire investigators later determined those locations were "areas of origin" for a fire that caused an estimated $350,000 in damage, prosecutors said. They said city cameras also captured Stewart in the area at the time, and he was later identified by multiple confidential informants of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"There are recordings and other evidence of people looting businesses, starting fires and attacking innocent victims, and it is our duty to prosecute the perpetrators," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "Citizens need to know that the rule of law will be upheld, and criminals who destroy property and jeopardize lives will be held accountable."

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Stewart was charged with malicious destruction of a commercial building.

Officials have been stressing their efforts to identify those responsible for the April rioting, looting and arson. They have limited the amount of new footage that can be held on CCTV cameras in order to preserve the older footage for investigative use.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has drawn criticism for her handling of the unrest, has said law enforcement officials are working to hold those responsible accountable.

John Chae, one of the owners of the Fireside who was badly injured when the store was attacked, said Thursday that he had "mixed emotions" about the arrest — in part because he still blames Rawlings-Blake and other city officials for allowing the unrest to happen.

"It isn't so much the perpetrator, it's the city, the mayor that I'm angry with," Chae said. "I am relieved that they did catch him, whoever it was, but what good is it going to do? ... I'm not going to say I'm ecstatic. I'm not going to be jumping up and down for joy, because my livelihood was taken away."

Prosecutors said the federal criminal complaint against Stewart was filed Sept. 24. He was arrested Monday on separate state charges, including second-degree assault, threatening arson and malicious destruction of property, from earlier in April.

He was being held pending an initial appearance in federal court Friday. If convicted of the federal charge, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Stewart could not be reached for comment. There was no attorney listed in his state case.

The unrest followed the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man died a week after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day he was buried, the rioting, looting and arson began.

The blaze at the Fireside was one of hundreds of fires in the city and became a priority for investigators, in part because of the violence associated with the incident.

Chae and his co-owner and brother, Han Chae, were both at the store when they realized trouble was headed their way, John Chae said days afterward.

"The first wave must have been 20 to 30 kids," Chae told The Baltimore Sun. "They had pipes and poles, like batons. It happened so fast. I was shocked. They came into the store and started banging against the [bulletproof] Plexiglas that separates the package section from the customer entrance."

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One boy Chae said he recognized pushed some of the kids out of the store. But minutes later, Chae saw "easily 100 to 150 kids coming down the street."

Prosecutors said city CCTV footage "captured individuals repeatedly assaulting and robbing" Chae outside his store before he was rescued by police. Han Chae was trapped on the second floor of the store and had to jump — injuring his ankle — before escaping in his vehicle. Another employee in the store also managed to get away.

When firefighters responded, they found another man — Allen Hicks — unconscious in the basement, suffering from smoke inhalation and carbon dioxide poisoning. Hicks told investigators he was in the store "looking for his brother, who was looting," when he fell through a trap door to the basement, according to the criminal complaint against Stewart. Hicks was hospitalized for a week.

A GoFundMe website started by one of John Chae's friends to help the family recover has raised more than $32,000. On Thursday, Chae said the donations have helped tremendously — including with medical bills — but he's not out of the woods yet.

He suffered two broken bones near his right eye in the beating he took outside his store, he said. His eyesight was not affected, he said, but he still has some scarring on his face, and has lost feeling in a portion of his face under his right eye that he may never regain.

"I'm going to keep plugging away and see what I need to do," he said.

Asked if he would consider starting another business in the city, he had two words.

"Hell, no."

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