- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - An attorney for a Minnesota man accused of firebombing a Somali restaurant across the North Dakota border in Grand Forks said Tuesday that any racial overtones were overblown by people who aren’t familiar with the case.

Defense attorney Ted Sandberg made the comments to The Associated Press after filing notice in federal court that Matthew Gust plans to plead guilty to two counts for the Dec. 7 fire at the Juba Coffee House. The plea deal calls for a sentence of 15 years in prison.

The fire came three days after vandals had spray-painted what some have described as a Nazi-like symbol on the business. While investigators have said they’re not sure about the nature of the symbol and don’t know whether it was connected to the fire, Sandberg said many people outside of law enforcement and the media jumped to inappropriate conclusions.

“While the racial undertones of this case were often over-emphasized and exaggerated by many people outside of the case, my client and the U.S. government never gave into such hyperbole or opinions, and instead stuck to business and reached an agreement on a very straightforward criminal matter,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg said he has received messages from people who are either unhappy he is defending Gust or believe the attorney is “an ally in their cause, whatever that may be.”

U.S. Attorney Christopher Myers of North Dakota declined to comment.

Sandberg said Gust will plead guilty to malicious use of explosive materials and interfering with a federally protected activity. A charge of use of a destructive device in a crime of violence, which would have carried a minimum 30-year sentence, would be dismissed. A change of plea hearing has not been set.

Investigators say the fire was started by a homemade explosive made from a 40-ounce beer bottle and caused an estimated $90,000 in damage.

Vandals had spray-painted graffiti and the “go home” on the business a few days earlier. Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said earlier there are “a lot different ways” the graffiti can be interpreted.

A spokeswoman for a group that supports refugees said recently that the cafe owners have been approved for insurance and are hoping to reopen in Grand Forks, but aren’t sure about financial details.

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