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Federal grand jury indicts man accused of setting Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office door on fire

People walk on a pedestrian street with a church steeple at the end
Charles Krupa
Associated Press
Shant Michael Soghomonian, who is accused of setting fire to the door of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office earlier this month, was formally charged by a federal grand jury on Thursday.

A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a 35-year-old man on a charge that he set fire to the door of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Burlington office earlier this month. A judge also ordered the man to be held in prison while the case is pending.

Shant Michael Soghomonian is accused of using fire to damage a building used in interstate commerce, a charge that carries a five to 20 year prison sentence.

His arraignment hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Soghomonian hadn’t been formally charged until the grand jury issued its indictment on Thursday, about five minutes before a previously scheduled hearing on whether Soghomonian would remain in prison.

He’s been held at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans since his arrest on April 7.

Soghomonian, who prosecutors described as living an itinerant lifestyle and being “somewhat homeless,” also appears to have a history of mental illness, including a recent hospitalization.

Judge Kevin Doyle said during Thursday's hearing that Soghomonian had a “significant” mental health history and his family had expressed concerns about his condition. According to Doyle, Soghomonian’s family said during a pretrial services interview that Soghomoanian at one point expressed fear that “drones are reading his mind and torturing him.”

Soghomonian has moved around the county over the past several years and frequently lived at motels. His family has been providing him financial support, including funds for housing, said public defender Mary Nerino, Soghomonian’s attorney, during Thursday’s hearing.

More from Vermont Public: Police arrest man for allegedly setting fire to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office door in Burlington

Law enforcement officials have not indicated any potential motive for the alleged arson.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont, Soghomonian entered the building at One Church Street on April 5 and went to the third floor where Sanders’ office is located.

Security camera footage from outside Sanders’ office showed a man wearing dark clothes and an orange hat pour a liquid across the bottom of the office door and then set fire to the area, said Eric Brimo, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in an affidavit.

There were multiple people in Sanders' office when the fire started, though no one was injured. The blaze damaged the outside of the office door and surrounding area and the buildings’ sprinklers went off on multiple floors, federal prosecutors said in a press release.

Burlington police released a picture of the arson suspect, and the day after the fire, police got a call from a hotel manager at The Inn at Burlington, who said he believed the man in the image was Soghomonian, Brimo said in his affidavit.

The hotel manager told police that Soghomonian frequently wore an “orange or salmon colored hat” like the one shown in the security camera footage. The manager said Soghomonian had been staying at the hotel for the past two months, the affidavit says.

Brimo also said pictures of Soghomonian from the hotel’s cameras appear to match the images taken outside Sanders’ office.

Soghomonian has had previous law enforcement encounters, federal prosecutors said in court papers filed last week.

Last year, Illinois State Police seized 11.5 grams of cannabis and an AK-47 rifle with two magazines from his car during a traffic stop. Troopers also found the novel How to Blow up a Pipeline in Soghomonian’s car, court records say. (The 2021 book by Andreas Malm argues in favor of sabotage in climate protests.)

Soghomonian was also allegedly arrested or detained in 2005 as a teenager for an assault involving a firearm on a person in Glendale, California. In court papers, prosecutors said that some charges in the case appear to have been dismissed, while others resulted in the “imposition of wardship.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Lasher, during Thursday’s hearing, said it appeared Soghomonian’s juvenile charge barred him from owning a firearm. Soghomonian tried at least once to purchase a gun after the AK-47 was seized and was denied, Lasher said.

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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