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Sanders office torch suspect barricaded hotel door

By Michael Donoghue, Vermont News First,

The suspect in an arson case at the Burlington offices of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, had his travel bags packed and his Shelburne hotel door barricaded when authorities tried to arrest him Sunday, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Records show Shant M. Soghomonian, 35, formerly of Northridge, Calif. had lived for much of February and March at an inn on Williston Road in South Burlington, the ATF said.

Soghomonian did not immediately answer his door at the Quality Inn in Shelburne when police announced their presence shortly before sunrise, but rather claimed he was getting dressed, the ATF said.

Investigators heard what sounded like the dragging of heavy items near the door, but the man continued to refuse to open the door, ATF Special Agent Eric Brimo said.

Fearing a barricade, a pass key was used to unlock the door, but it was blocked, forcing officers to push their way in, Brimo reported.

Soghomonian was found inside, and he was wearing what appeared to be the same white Nike shoes that had been seen on security video during the arson on Friday morning, the ATF said.

Williston Police Sgt. Eric Shepard and Brimo did a protective sweep of the room to ensure nobody else was inside, the ATF said.

Brimo said the room was secured and a subsequent request was made to Magistrate Judge Kevin J. Doyle for a search warrant to cover both room 174 and the Subaru parked outside. The car was told to the Burlington Police Department.

Soghomonian, who did not have a wallet or cellphone with him when arrested, was taken to the Williston Police Department, where he said he did not want to speak with investigators without a lawyer.

He remains jailed on a federal complaint at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town pending a hearing in federal court late Tuesday afternoon.

Soghomonian is charged in a federal criminal complaint with setting a fire on Friday at 1 Church Street in Burlington — a building used in interstate commerce. The former Masonic Temple is the home to Sanders’ Vermont office, the law firm of Paul Frank & Collins and a Chase Bank branch.

Investigation revealed Soghomonian had been outside Sanders’ office the day before the arson – indicating it was a planned attack and not a spontaneous act, the ATF said.

The new information about the arson case became public after Vermont News First made an emergency petition to federal court on Sunday evening to release records about the criminal charge and search warrants.

The petition to Chief Court Clerk Jeff Eaton and Judge Doyle was approved by 5:45 Monday morning and the records were subsequently released. The court was closed until Tuesday for the eclipse.

The court records show authorities credit two employees at the former La Quinta Inn on Williston Road next to Al’s French Frys, as helping to identify Soghomonian on Saturday as the suspect in the federal arson case.

The two witnesses reported the picture of the suspect released by Burlington Police on Friday afternoon matched Soghomonian, who had been a long-term guest at the motel, now known as the Inn at Burlington, the ATF said.

An inn manager reported on Saturday he thought he recognized the suspect as Soghomonian based on a photograph of the suspect near the crime scene, Brimo said in a court affidavit.

Burlington Police Sgt. John Stoughton met with the manager, Gavin Grady and another co-worker, Nathan Hutchins, who reported the suspect checked in as “Michael Soghomonian,” according to the court records made public Monday morning.

Soghomonian often wore the same orange or salmon colored hat on the top of his head that was seen on the arson suspect, they said.

Hutchins said he often chatted with Soghomonian because he would come down to the lobby to renew the room for another day or two, the ATF said.

Stoughton also secured screen shots from the hotel security video from when Soghomonian was staying there. The inn also shared a description of the car used by Soghomonian and also is phone number.

Brimo obtained an arrest warrant from Doyle on Saturday after filing a criminal complaint with a 10-page affidavit, records show. The Vermont Intelligence Center in Williston issued a secured alert to certified law enforcement officers that an arrest warrant had been issued and to use caution if they came across Soghomonian, Brimo said.

Sgt. Shepard, who is a member of the ATF’s Gun Violence Task Force, was alerted by Shelburne Police that they had found the 2019 blue Subaru Impreza with New York registration plates about 4 a.m. Sunday at the Quality Inn on Shelburne Road, just south of the South Burlington city line, records show.

Shepard said he confirmed with the staff at the Quality Inn that Soghomonian was renting a room and was due to leave after daylight.

Brimo said that’s when the decision was made to approach the room and arrest Soghomonian if he was inside.

The Burlington Fire Department reported on Friday that somebody entered 1 Church Street about 10:44 a.m. and went to the third floor. Security video showed a man spraying a liquid on the door at Sanders’ office and setting it afire with a lighter, officials said.

Sanders was not in the office at the time.

Burlington Fire Chief Michael LaChance said the sprinkler system and fire alarms were activated and people were evacuated. He said the fire was located between the elevator and the door to Sanders’ office and quickly extinguished.

The video captured clear images of the arsonist at the historic building, officials said.

Detective Sgt. Matthew Hill of the Vermont State Police Arson Division confirmed that the fire was caused by an incendiary act, court records show.

The motive for the fire remains unclear.

A desk clerk at the Quality inn told Vermont News First that Soghomonian had checked in Saturday morning and was due to leave Sunday morning. She said the inn was fully booked for Sunday and Monday nights due to the eclipse.

“He came in quietly,” the clerk said. His room was in the back portion of the inn, not visible from Shelburne Road.

The initial criminal complaint filed by ATF carries a possible penalty of 5 to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, upon conviction.


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