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Police release video of Grand Forks Somali restaurant arson suspect, witness heard 'tiny explosion'

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Investigators could be seen taking pictures of the site and digging through debris at Juba Coffee House, where a fire broke out in the early hours of Tuesday morning. (Sarah Volpenhein | Forum News Service) 2 / 2

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Grand Forks police have released a video of a person believed to be involved in possible arson at a Somali restaurant breaking the glass of the shop's front windows early Tuesday.

The video depicts a person punching and breaking the front windows of Juba Coffee House and Restaurant at 2017 S. Washington St. Police believe the person may have suffered injuries in breaking the window and that the injuries would most likely be to the person's right hand or arm, according to a news release issued by the Grand Forks Police Department at about 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a witness to the fire said he heard a "tiny explosion" before seeing smoke pouring from a hole in the restaurant's front windows.

Trey Carmona said Wednesday he was walking home at about 2 a.m. Tuesday along South Washington Street when he passed by Juba Coffee House and heard a "tiny explosion."

"It wasn't too loud, but it was noticeable enough to get my attention," he said.

Carmona said he did not see anyone near the building at the time.

He noticed smoke streaming out of the building and a hole the size of a "blown-up beach ball" in the front windows of the building.

The smoke, he said, smelled like burning rubber or plastic, "like the smell when a car burns," he said.

Carmona, who did not have his phone with him, flagged down a driver, Jake Lund, who called 911.

Lund, a driver for Deek's Pizza, said he pulled over, noticed the smoke spilling from a hole in the restaurant's windows and called dispatchers.

"You could tell the place was burning," he said. "You could hear crackling inside, popping."

Lund said he also noticed a garbage bag with one of its corners taped up, which he thought might have been used to cover the hole.

The flames were not visible, he said, but the smoke became heavier in the roughly five minutes it took for firefighters to arrive.

Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control within 20 minutes, but not before it caused an estimated $90,000 worth in damages, Grand Forks Fire Battalion Chief Rob Corbett said Tuesday. The fire also affected neighboring businesses within the building, with smoke and soot filling Josef's School of Hair Design, said Josh Bleninger, the school's director.

No one was injured in the fire.

Fire marshals determined later the fire was ignited intentionally. The Grand Forks Police Department took over the investigation of the fire.

Investigators have not specified what they believe may have been used to start it, nor have they speculated on what the motive behind the intentional act may have been.

Though it is widely believed the fire was likely a hate crime, Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said Tuesday police did not want to "pigeonhole" the investigation by making that assumption.

"We're certainly not going to put blinders on our investigation, and I would encourage the public to do the same," he said.

The fire was ignited days after the words "go home" were spray-painted on the exterior of the restaurant below "SS," drawn in the style of a symbol from Nazi Germany.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement today urging the FBI to open a hate crime investigation into the possible arson and the vandalism of the restaurant.

The chapter urged local police to boost security at the mosque in Grand Forks as well by increasing patrols in the area.

"The lives of American Muslims have been placed in danger by the rising anti-Muslim hysteria

in our nation and by the inflammatory rhetoric used by a number of national public figures," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the council's Minnesota chapter, in the statement.

The chapter said the fire "fits a pattern of increased hate-motivated crimes and bias incidents nationwide" targeting Muslims after the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino, Calif., killings. Islamic State militants have claimed those pledging allegiance to their group were involved in the attacks. Some politicians have asked for the suspension of accepting Muslim immigrants into the U.S.

The Juba attack occurred against the backdrop of Republican presidential candidate and frontrunner Donald Trump's proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the country, an idea widely derided by political commentators as reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany and contrary to American values and beliefs.

About 100 area residents convened outside Juba Tuesday evening, where local leaders assured local Muslims and immigrants they are welcome in Grand Forks.

"This is your home," said Robin David, president of the board of Global Friends Coalition, a Grand Forks-based group that supports refugee integration.

The GoFundMe page set up hours after reports of the fire Tuesday in support of the restaurant had raised nearly $15,000 by 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, far surpassing its initial goal of raising $8,000. It attracted donations from prominent people outside of Grand Forks, including John DiMaggio, voice of the character Bender in the TV show Futurama.

Some donors included messages of support for the restaurant and for immigrants with their donations.