An East Grand Forks man accused of setting fire to a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks pleaded not guilty Friday to a federal charge and will go to trial in March. He will remain in custody before the trial.
Matthew William Gust, 25, was charged Jan. 15 in federal court with malicious use of an explosive device and use of a destructive device during a crime of violence after police say he started a fire Dec. 8 that damaged Juba Coffee House and Restaurant at 2017 S. Washington St.
Police say Gust filled a 40-ounce beer bottle with gasoline, broke the window of Juba and threw the bottle inside, resulting in an explosion that caused $90,000 in damage.
A grand jury indicted Gust on the malicious use of an explosive device charge but not the second charge, use of a destructive device during a crime of violence, which carried a heavier sentence.
Instead of facing a minimum of 30 years in prison, Gust now only faces a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum of 20 years. He also could be required to pay restitution and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Prosecutors argued Gust should remain in jail based on his criminal history and failure to show up to court in the past. They cited a 2011 incident where Gust threatened to harm a clerk at Romantix, an adult entertainment store in Grand Forks, and punched a police officer in the eye. Prosecutors also discussed additional misdemeanors Gust faced after he missed multiple court hearings.
Gust’s defense attorney, Theodore Sandberg, argued the prosecution had “fairly thin stuff to keep someone locked up.” He argued that Gust should be released to his family and be monitored until the trial.
During arguments over whether Gust should stay in prison, the prosecution discussed Juba’s role in the Somali community in Grand Forks.
But the defense called that reference “irrelevant” and “inflammatory with no basis in this case.” Sandberg argued that race or nationality are not included in Gust’s charge, and Gust should only be tried based on what is in the charge.
The words “go home” along with Nazi-like symbols were spray-painted on the restaurant days before the fire, and many community members questioned whether the owners were targeted because they are Somali.
However, police have not released a motive for the Juba fire and have not said whether the two incidents are related.
The prosecution also did not discuss the graffiti in court Friday.
Gust’s trial is set for March 15 and is expected to last five days.