A homeless man charged with setting fire to an unmarked New York City police car was released from federal custody Monday after his defense attorney said authorities arrested the wrong man.
“I think they jumped the gun on the arrest,” federal public defender Kannan Sundaram told The Associated Press. “They arrested the wrong person.”
Prosecutors did not explain the alleged mix-up in dismissing the federal charge against Michael Rodriguez but said the case remained under investigation. Rodriguez faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn declined to comment. Prosecutors dismissed the charge “without prejudice,” meaning they may re-file the case if new evidence emerges.
Rodriguez, 32, was jailed Thursday after the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives accused him of setting fire to an NYPD vehicle June 2, hours after a curfew the city implemented following several days of unrest in which numerous police vehicles were burned and stores ransacked. The car had an NYPD placard on its dashboard and had been parked on a Brooklyn street.
Video footage showed a man wearing a surgical mask pouring liquid on the unoccupied vehicle, putting cardboard on it and igniting the cardboard, authorities said in court filings. The arsonist appeared to record the blaze and waited until the vehicle was engulfed before leaving about 4:30 a.m., authorities said. The fire also damaged another car parked nearby.
The tip leading to Rodriguez's arrest came after authorities released a photograph of the arsonist and visited a “public area" where Rodriguez had been known to sleep, authorities wrote in court filings.
A witness told investigators that a man known as Justin had been sleeping there for two weeks. The witness added that Justin asked "whether the witness saw anything about him in the newspaper” the day after the NYPD circulated the photograph of the suspect, authorities said in court filings. Investigators also found a newspaper article about the arson near where Justin had been sleeping.
Investigators approached a man three blocks away who “responded to the name Justin but later admitted his name was Michael Rodriguez,” ATF Special Agent Eric Dornbusch wrote in a criminal complaint.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue issued a press release about Rodriguez's arrest, saying he had endangered innocent residents and first responders. “The defendant’s actions have no place in civil society," he said, "and this office will vigorously prosecute him and others who commit such acts of violence in our community.”
Sundaram, the defense attorney, said his own investigation concluded the wrong man had been arrested, though he noted he had not been given access to all of the evidence.
An ATF spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Numerous police cars were set on fire in New York City in the early days of protest against the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
Rodriguez’s arrest came as the same U.S. Attorney’s Office was prosecuting three other people, including two Brooklyn attorneys, on charges accusing them of throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles in separate incidents.