More than six years after civil unrest, looting and arson rocked the Sherman Park area, a man involved in lighting one of the fires faced sentencing for his crime.
Stephen Ruffin, 34, had been to the brink of sentencing twice before, but U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman declined to impose a mandatory minimum five-year prison term for arson.
On Friday, Ruffin was back before Adelman after having reached a new deal. He pleaded guilty to using an instrument of interstate commerce to participate in a riot, a charge that carries no minimum mandatory term.
He has already paid the roughly $4,000 restitution for fire damage to the store's exterior. No one was hurt. Adelman sentenced Ruffin to a year of probation.
"No doubt this was a very dangerous thing to do," Adelman said. "Everyone's fortunate it didn't turn out worse."
While arson would normally require prison time, Adelman said community sentence would suffice in this case.
The judge noted Ruffin's work history, lack of criminal record, primary care and custody of his 9-year-old son, as well as his genuine remorse and the general agreement that the acts were "truly out of character."
Ruffin has worked the last six years at the same mail and parcel fulfillment center, and been promoted to first shift supervisor, said his attorney, Christopher Donovan. He's had no violations while out on pretrial release for more than five years.
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"I give Judge Adelman credit for being courageous enough to call out an unjust sentence when he sees one," Donovan said before Friday's sentencing, referring to the 2020 hearing. "And after that, the government became more reasonable."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Ladwig conceded Ruffin saw the arson more as an opportunity to get in the liquor store than an act of rebellion. Still, Ladwig said, the fire had the effect of furthering the riots going on in the area.
Ruffin was charged in 2017 with rioting, arson and arson in connection with a felony for helping set a fire at Big Jim's Liquor Store, 2161 N. Hopkins St. on Aug. 14, 2016. He originally pleaded guilty to the arson count before Adelman urged the lawyers to come up with a different resolution.
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According to Ruffin's plea agreement:
Surveillance video from Big Jim's shows Ruffin and two other men, armed with bolt cutters, trying to break into the rear door around 12:17 a.m. Unsuccessful, the men left.
More than an hour later, Ruffin - wearing the same orange shirt, khaki shorts and white-striped blue Adidas shoes - returned to the rear of Big Jim's with another man. The video shows Ruffin carrying a container of charcoal lighter fluid and the other man spraying it onto the store's air conditioning unit. Ruffin and the other man then lit some paper and ignited the lighter fluid. Before they left, Ruffin placed a plastic container on the burning AC unit.
Phone records put Ruffin at Big Jim's at those times. Texts from the phone during the same period read, "I'm rioting with 'em" and "It's a riot out here."
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Riots broke out in parts of the Sherman Park neighborhood, following the shooting of Sylville Smith, 23, by since-fired Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown. Heaggan-Brown was found not guilty of first-degree reckless homicide in June 2017.
People set fire to several businesses, including a BP gas station, O'Reilly's Auto Parts and BMO Harris Bank.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Man charged in 2016 Sherman Park arson pleads guilty, gets probation