Man who torched CTA van in 2020 summer rioting gets 3-plus years

Denzal Stewart admitted to setting fire to a CTA van during riots downtown on May 30, 2020.

A federal judge handed down the longest prison sentence yet for torching a car in Chicago during the 2020 rioting following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Judge Gary Feinerman on Monday sentenced Denzal Stewart to 3 years and 9 months for conspiracy to commit arson and civil disorder.

It’s a longer sentence than the nearly 3 years given to Timothy O’Donnell, who torched a police vehicle while wearing a Joker mask; and the 3 years’ probation given to Jacob Fagundo, a School of the Art Institute student who torched another police car during the riots.

Stewart had pleaded guilty to setting a CTA van on fire on May 30, 2020, on State Street just north of Van Buren.

Before he was sentenced, Stewart told the judge he was a changed man.

"I know it may sound crazy, but I’m grateful for this incarceration making me the man I am today," he said in an orange jumpsuit at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago.


The 26-year-old said he wanted a short sentence so he could take care of his five children, the youngest of whom is a year old.

The judge said he believed Stewart was telling the truth and took his remorseful attitude into account when issuing a sentence below the 5 to 7 years suggested by federal guidelines. Prosecutors asked for 6 years.

"I think he’s trying to turn the page," Feinerman said.

But he said Stewart’s lengthy criminal history needed to be addressed. Stewart had served time for residential burglary, multiple counts of possession of a stolen vehicle, resisting police and escape.

The judge said the sentence must also send a message to the community "at large that they are not to commit arson and civil disorder" during what he said was a "precarious moment in our city and country."

"What we ended up having is chaos instead of orderly protest," Feinerman said. "At the time, we didn’t resemble the United States. We looked like a country we watch on TV in horror and pity."

Stewart and two co-defendants went downtown to "steal and wreak havoc" while thousands of others peacefully protested downtown, Assistant U.S. Attorney Albert Berry III said in his sentencing memo.

On their way, Stewart could be seen in a Facebook Live video, seated in the backseat of a car wearing a ski mask and gloves, prosecutors said in a sentencing memo.

In the video, Stewart said he wanted to loot "a jewelry store" or "anything" that was open, according to his August guilty plea.

When they spotted the parked CTA van, Stewart used a lighter to set fire to a piece of cloth inside, prosecutors said. He then allegedly moved a cardboard box into the front of the van where a co-defendant set another fire.

Afterward, Stewart filmed the ignited van from across the street, yelling: "Torch that [expletive]," "There it go, first spark," and "what the [expletive] wrong with them. We torching [expletive] out here," according to the sentencing memo.

Stewart’s lawyer wrote that he suffers from untreated bipolar disorder and "he got caught up in the emotions of the moment and set a fire."

Stewart has already served about 21 months, pending the outcome of the case.

He was also sentenced to 3 years’ probation and ordered to pay the CTA restitution for the nearly $20,000 in damage done to the van.

He will share the costs of restitution with his other two co-defendants: Lamar Taylor, who pleaded guilty to the same charges and is set to be sentenced later this month; and Darion Lindsey, who has not been sentenced.

The trio was first charged in February 2021.