SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – After a two-day jury trial, Zachary Alexander Karas of San Diego was found guilty of possessing incendiary devices known as Molotov cocktails at a protest that began on May 30, 2020 in La Mesa. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, Chief District Judge Dana M. Sabraw remanded Karas into custody. Sentencing is set for August 13, 2021, at 9 a.m. before Chief Judge Sabraw.
“No one should bring a Molotov cocktail to disrupt a protest,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “This was a serious crime that had potential to cause significant damage.” Grossman commended prosecutors Matthew Brehm and Joseph Orabona, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI, and investigators from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for their excellent work on this case.
“Today’s verdict sends a message to those who utilize lawful, peaceful protests to disguise their criminal acts,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner. “Zachary Karas was in possession of a functioning incendiary device which, thankfully, was not used. Regardless, citizens have the right to peacefully assemble without threat of disruption, criminal activity, or violence. The FBI is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to protect those who are exercising their constitutional rights as well as protecting the safety of the community.”
“ATF is the Federal agency primarily responsible for administering and enforcing the federal laws pertaining to destructive devices, explosives, and arson,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge Monique Villegas. “ATF will use all its resources to ensure destructive devices (Molotov cocktails) are not being used in our communities. We are glad the jury delivered the guilty verdict sending a message to those who consider creating their own devices for criminal use.”
According to evidence presented at trial, on May 31, 2020, at 2:00 a.m., hours after police had declared an unlawful assembly and given numerous dispersal orders, Karas was standing in the middle of the road at the intersection of Allison Avenue and Spring Street, blocking traffic as part of the protest in La Mesa.
At the time of the protest in La Mesa, several fires had been set, and those fires damaged buildings and property. In fact, Karas was standing in the street in front of the Chase and Union banks that had been set ablaze. In the early morning hours of May 31, 2020, at approximately 2:00 a.m., officers gave orders to the crowd, including Karas, to disperse for an unlawful assembly. However, Karas and others refused, and Karas was arrested for refusing to leave his position in the middle of the street. After his arrest, officers discovered that Karas possessed two glass bottles with wicks that contained gasoline and two smoke bombs.
In video-recorded statements, after being read his Miranda rights, Karas stated that he made the Molotov cocktails and brought them to the La Mesa protest because he intended to use them to set fires, but claimed he ultimately did not cause any fires. Karas explained in the statement, “And I heard of the fires. So I came back out with the, yes, intention to start a fire, but I did not have a part in the fire.” Karas said he got the bottles from a Rite Aid parking lot and used 87 octane gasoline as the fuel. He claimed that he had acted alone.
A chemist with the ATF laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, tested the liquid found inside Karas’ Molotov cocktails and confirmed it was gasoline. An explosives enforcement officer with the ATF received the chemist’s analysis, inspected the physical evidence, and found that the Molotov cocktails were functioning destructive devices.
A special agent with the ATF inspected the Molotov cocktails and found them to be functioning incendiary devices.