- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A Minnesota man who pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal hate crime for firebombing a Somali restaurant across the border in North Dakota says the incident had nothing to do with race.

Matthew Gust, of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, told U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson he didn’t like the wording of one of the charges that accused him of attempting to intimidate employees and customers of the Juba Coffee House in Grand Forks because of their nationality. Gust said race wasn’t a factor, but pleaded guilty anyway to that count and one other charge.

But prosecutor Megan Healy said the charge regarding the cafe patrons is appropriate because at least two witnesses testified that Gust, 25, has shown animosity toward the Somali community.

Gust’s attorney, Ted Sandberg, wasn’t immediately available for comment Thursday, but previously told The Associated Press that racial undertones have been “over-emphasized and exaggerated” by people not familiar with the legal proceedings.

Several federal officials issued statements after the hearing. “There is no place for hate in our communities, and these targeted acts of violence won’t be tolerated,” said Jim Modzelewski, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Authorities say the Dec. 8 fire was started by a homemade explosive made from a 40-ounce beer bottle and caused an estimated $90,000 in damage. The fire came three days after vandals spray-painted what some have described as a Nazi-like symbol on the business, along with the phrase “go home.”

Investigators have not said whether the message was connected to the fire. Dozens of people of different faiths showed up for a candlelight ceremony outside the cafe a day after the fire.

The plea agreement calls for a sentence of 15 years in prison. Erickson said he would order Gust to pay for the damages, which he called “a big chunk of change.”

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