(The Grio) - Avonte Hartsfield said the fire that destroyed his food truck occurred after several days of escalating incidents that made him feel targeted.
San Diego prosecutors have charged a Black businessman, who claimed a “series of hate crimes” directed at him resulted in the destruction of his vegan food truck, with arson and insurance fraud.
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Avonte Hartsfield, 26, who is gay, also faces a grand theft charge. On Tuesday, he entered a not-guilty plea to charges stemming from the Oct. 3, 202, fire that destroyed his Rollin Roots truck in Kearny Mesa.
Hartsfield claimed at the time that the fire occurred following several days of escalating incidents that made him feel targeted. He said someone cut electrical lines to the truck and placed a noose over his office door a few days before the food truck went up in flames while parked outside.
According to a criminal complaint, prosecutors suspect Hartsfield intentionally started the fire and then submitted a fake insurance claim. Through a GoFundMe campaign, he was able to amass over $102,000 from more than 2,100 donors, funds that the prosecution claims he accepted under false pretenses.
Hartsfield said Tuesday that police failed to examine the case entirely and focused solely on him without looking for other suspects.
“They only investigated me,” said Hartsfield, according to The Union-Tribune. “I guess we get to expose the system at this point, so I’m excited for that opportunity.”
Hartsfield offered in March to return funds he had raised, claiming on his GoFundMe page that he had learned from an unknown source that his leased truck’s fire was not intentionally set but was instead the result of an “electrical mishap.”
“Whether that was caused by the vandalism to our electrical system or not, I definitely want to be transparent as I found that information out I wanted to immediately make it available,” he wrote, The Union-Tribune reported. “Knowing the fire was not decided as arson could influence your donation and I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to request a refund.”
Hartsfield started in 2019 as a pop-up food vendor at area farmers’ markets. He pivoted to a food truck in 2020 when COVID-19 pandemic rules forced outdoor markets to close, frequently using the vehicle to serve meals to homeless people, in addition to paying customers.
He posted a request for assistance on GoFundMe in late 2020, claiming he was “struggling to make ends meet,” raising more than $18,000.
Hartsfield accepted a $5,000 donation from a supporter in 2021 in addition to a $25,000 grant from a nonprofit organization founded by celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the California Restaurant Foundation.
Hartsfield was, at the time of the fire, reportedly discussing starting a vegan pizza shop downtown where he could help other people who wanted to start companies.
Following the incident, he admitted that he made an insurance claim and that the money he received helped him buy a new food truck.
Early last month, Hartsfield announced on Instagram that he was pausing the food truck, and a few weeks later, he declared he was moving to Los Angeles from San Diego.
He acknowledged on Tuesday that GoFundMe processed donor reimbursements, though he was unsure of the precise number. TheGrio has reached out to the organization for comment.
Judge Laura Halgren of the San Diego Superior Court issued the arraignment order Tuesday, directing Hartsfield to proceed to a detention facility to be processed and released. If convicted, he could serve a sentence of up to seven years and four months behind bars.