A 31-year-old man was sentenced to five years in federal prison on Tuesday for setting fire to a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in West Philadelphia amid widespread looting of businesses that broke out in the city’s Parkside neighborhood during the 2020 protests over the police killing of George. Floyd.
Derek Wethrib, of Philadelphia, apologized for his actions, saying he wasn’t in the “right mindset” because he was broadcasting himself on Facebook using a container of tiki-torch fuel and a lighter he had stolen from the store to set the bathroom fixture aisle on fire.
But as she announced Wetherby’s sentence Tuesday, US District Judge Jane E.K. Prater is still confused as to the motive behind his crimes.
“What’s the connection between going to Louise and George Floyd?” she asked, adding later, “Your problem is that you did a dangerous, senseless act… It’s awful to go to jail for being such a fool.”
Weatherbe nodded in agreement. His wife — who said earlier on Tuesday she did not realize her husband would have to go to jail — sat quietly sobbing, bent over a seat in the courtroom.
Since the unrest that erupted across the city after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, more than a dozen people have been charged by federal authorities in Philadelphia with taking advantage of the moment to rob shops, blow up ATMs or burn police cars.
But while many of those sentenced so far have received sentences at the low end or below prosecutors’ recommendations and federal sentencing guidelines, Weatherbe was one of the harshest sentencing yet.
Because he pleaded guilty last year to one count of arson — a charge that carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence — Prater admitted her hands were largely tied.
“It’s a scary amount of time to spend in prison,” she said. “I realize this is a very difficult sentence, and I think you understand the court’s choices.”
U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents identified Weatherbe using facial recognition software and surveillance footage of a ransacked Lowe’s at 1500 W. 50th St. At the ParkWest Town Center shopping plaza.
Once they got his name, they tracked down his Facebook account and found the livestream recording of his crimes.
The footage showed Weatherbe – wearing a black bandanna with yellow smiley faces and a T-shirt with “hustle” written on the front – pushing a cart full of items including light fixtures, power tools and a chainsaw out of the shop to a waiting car.
Once finished, he returned to the store and filmed himself making a fire and fleeing the building, stopping only on the way out to steal two bottles of Mountain Dew.
The area was so packed with people taking items from stores at the time that responding firefighters said they had to leave and return with a police escort before they could enter the building to put out the flames.
“The defendant that day quietly set fire to a warehouse full of people and full of cardboard,” Priya De Souza, assistant district attorney, said in court on Tuesday. “By the grace of God alone, no one was injured or killed that day.”
When it came time to address the judge, Weatherbe offered a few as an illustration. He said only that he had been in a serious car accident months earlier that left him with injuries — including a brain bleed — that left him at home in recovery, with social media his only outlet.
“two years ago [the] aura[virus] It started, I was locked in a house before anyone else was locked in the house,” he said. “I don’t know if I de-stressed naturally that day or something, but I was never really going to hurt anyone, or put any endangered someone, or damaged property, to be honest.”
In addition to the prison sentence, Prater ordered Weatherbe to serve three years’ probation, complete 150 hours of community service, and pay Lowe approximately $75,000 in restitution.
“His actions in this case were completely out of character,” Wetherby’s attorney, Geoffrey Azarano, said. “He is a caring father who is embarrassed by his behavior and regrets every day the decision that led to his arrest.”