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Former college basketball player Bryce Michael Williams pleaded guilty and was also sentenced to help pay $12m in restitution for the damage caused.
Judge Patrick Schiltz said in court on Monday morning that the 27-year-old father was a “good person who made a terrible mistake”. Accordingly, the judge sentenced Willaims to a prison term shorter than federal guidelines prescribed, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
But Williams’ request for probation was denied by Judge Schiltz, who said he had been a leader and “not a follower” within the group who set fire to the police station in south Minneapolis as riots took hold of the city after the murder of George Floyd.
On May 28, 2020, a crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered outside the precinct, chanting “burn it down!” Dozens tore down a fence surrounding the building.
Williams went into the precinct, lighting a Molotov cocktail then used by Davon De-Andre Turner to start the fire. Near the entrance, Williams then threw a box on top of the fire.
Posting videos of himself and others rioting, Williams’ TikTok account grew fast and soon had more than 150,000 followers.
Williams, Turner, Dylan Shakespeare Robinson and Branden Michael Wolfe were all indicted by a grand jury on one count each of conspiracy to commit arson. All of them pleaded guilty. Turner was sentenced to three years in prison, Robinson received four years, and Wolfe got three years and five months. All of them must help pay for the restitution.
The Star Tribune describes Williams as a biracial man who grew in the mostly white suburbs of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The first college graduate in his family, he went to university on a basketball scholarship, finishing school just before Mr Floyd’s murder.
“George Floyd helped me figure out who I am, 100 per cent,” he told the Star Tribune earlier this year. He said in court on Monday that he was ashamed of his behaviour during the riot and that he won’t forget “the pain and agony” he helped facilitate.
Since being charged, he said he has had steady employment in security work, he has stopped drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, adding that he has been focused on his faith and being a good father.
“Please have mercy on me while you sentence me,” he asked Judge Schiltz.
A Minneapolis police officer who left the force following the riots after 37 years as an officer, told the court she sent photos of herself to her family before and after every shift to tell them she was OK. The former officer, who was not named, said “almost 300” other officers left the force after the riots. “There’s so much we lost that was more than bricks and mortar.”
Judge Schiltz said Williams had “done everything right” since his arrest. He was the first to plead guilty out of the four men.
The judge added that it was “easy to understand” why the killing of Mr Floyd had affected Williams. But he also said time in prison was warranted because of Williams’ role in the riot, and that Williams didn’t know how many people were in the building when he helped light the fire, possibly putting lives at risk.
The judge said he would recommend that Williams be placed at a federal facility in Duluth in northeast Minnesota, where he can be close to his family.
He must surrender to prison on 13 July.