A businessman whose popular San Diego-based vegan food truck was destroyed last year in a fire — a loss he said was part of “a shocking series of hate crimes” directed at him — was charged Tuesday with arson and insurance fraud in connection with the blaze.
Avonte Hartsfield, 26, pleaded not guilty in San Diego Superior Court to allegations stemming from the fire, which gutted his Rollin Roots truck while it was parked outside his Kearny Mesa office on Oct. 3, 2021.
Prosecutors allege Hartsfield set the fire “with the intent to defraud” and subsequently filed a fraudulent insurance claim, according to a criminal complaint.
Hartsfield also faces a charge of grand theft. He raised more than $102,000 from more than 2,100 supporters as part of a GoFundMe fundraising campaign. He received a $20,000 donation from Sycuan tribal officials.
Prosecutors say he accepted the GoFundMe donations under false pretenses.
If convicted of the charges, he faces up to seven years and four months in prison.
During the Tuesday arraignment, San Diego Superior Court Judge Laura Halgren ordered Hartsfield, who was out of custody, to report to a detention facility to be processed and released.
Deputy Public Defender Doug Miller did not discuss details of the case during the brief hearing.
Outside the courtroom, Hartsfield said “the police failed to investigate the case fully” and properly, and that they zeroed in on him without looking for other suspects. He maintained that someone “targeted” his business.
“They only investigated me,” he said. “I guess we get to expose the system at this point, so I’m excited for that opportunity.”
At the time, Hartsfield, who is Black and gay, said the fire in the leased truck happened after several days of escalating incidents that left him feeling targeted. Someone left a noose hanging over his office door, he said, and power lines to the truck were cut a few days before the fire.
In March, Hartsfield said on his GoFundMe page that he had learned — he did not say from whom — that the fire was not arson but was “actually from electrical mishap.” He offered to refund money he had raised.
“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 in the March 26 post. “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 said Tuesday that GoFundMe handled refunds for donors, but he did not know how many.
A GoFundMe spokesperson said the company doesn’t share refund information for privacy reasons.
Hartsfield acknowledged he filed an insurance claim after the fire and added that the insurance funds helped him acquire another food truck.
He initially launched his business as a pop-up food vendor who sold at farmers’ markets in 2019. He pivoted to operating a food truck after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions shut down outdoor markets in 2020. By late 2020, he took to GoFundMe to appeal for support, saying he was “struggling to make ends meet.” He raised more than $18,500.
The cash infusion helped, and business picked up. In 2021, he received a $25,000 grant from a non-profit partnership between celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the California Restaurant Foundation, and accepted another $5,000 donation from a supporter.
In addition to serving customers, he regularly provided meals to homeless people from the truck.
At the time the fire occurred, Hartsfield was talking about opening a vegan pizzeria downtown where he could also assist others hoping to start businesses.
After the successful fundraising effort, Hartsfield got another food truck. He posted on Instagram and Facebook that he was reopening the truck at a vegan market event in Miramar on March 13.
In early October, he posted on Instagram he was putting the food truck “on pause” while he continued serving food out of the Serpentine Cider Brewery and Lost Cause Meadery in Miramar. A few weeks later, he announced he was leaving San Diego for Los Angeles — and invited friends and supporters to say goodbye at the Miramar location.