- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Federal prosecutors have beefed up charges against a Minnesota man accused of starting a fire that heavily damaged a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, charging the suspect Monday with a count that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Matthew Gust, of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, pleaded not guilty to a charge of use of a destructive device during a crime of violence. That charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Gust also is charged with malicious use of an explosive device, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years.

The original complaint contained both charges, but defense attorney Ted Sandberg said the government withdrew the more serious charge before the grand jury convened. A second grand jury panel later brought back the second charge.

Authorities say the Dec. 7 fire at the Juba Coffee House was started by a homemade explosive made from a 40-ounce beer bottle and caused an estimated $90,000 in damage. It happened three days after vandals spray-painted what some have described as a Nazi-like symbol on the business, along with the words “go home.” Investigators say they do not know if the vandalism and the fire are connected.

Dozens of people of different faiths showed up for a candlelight ceremony outside the cafe a day after the fire. The FBI announced about that time that it had joined the investigation.

Sandberg said Gust maintains his innocence.

“We are aware that entities both here in North Dakota and, especially outside North Dakota, who want to believe that there was a darker motive in the alleged vandalism of the Juba Cafe,” Sandberg said. “But our own internal review and analysis of the evidence does not show any racial or religious motives at this time. Any possible belief in racial or religious motives in this case would appear to be based solely on indirect and circumstantial evidence.”

Federal prosecutors declined to comment.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for a group that supports refugees in the Grand Forks area says the cafe owners are hoping to reopen in Grand Forks, but aren’t sure about financial details.

“The insurance has been approved and that is very exciting for the family,” said Cynthia Schaab, executive director of Global Friends Coalition in Grand Forks.

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