MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When rioters set fire to parts of the Twin Cities last summer, the world was watching.

So were investigators, who were about to take on one of the biggest tasks of their careers.

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More than 160 arson investigations are connected to the unrest last May, according to Jeffery Reed, assistant special agent in charge for the ATF’s St. Paul Field division.

“When I saw that from the air, it was likened to a battlefield scene, actual battlefield video footage that I’d seen before,” Reed said. “That’s the immediate analogy that I drew because it looked like missile strikes.”

(credit: CBS)

Reed watched the unrest last May knowing his team would be called to step in.

“It was daunting,” Reed said.

The FBI was also watching from Washington D.C., then the ATF’s national response teams came in from across America. But getting started was complicated, juggling COVID-19 worries, security challenges for ground crews and the emotion of it all.

“Were they getting enough rest? Were they, you know, how is this affecting them mentally, because in a crisis event, I mean, it affects us all,” Reed said.

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There were a total of 164 arsons at local businesses. It’s a staggering scope that Deputy State Fire Marshall John Ray says was only doable if all agencies worked together: local, federal and state.

“It was overwhelming to begin with. Just the sheer number of fires that came in all at the same time,” Ray said. “I’d much rather be involved than sit by and watch idly.”

Assistant Special Agent Jeffery Reed (credit: CBS)

For weeks, teams rummaged through piles of rubble, social media and surveillance, talking to witnesses and obtaining search warrants to piece things together
“They were giving it everything they had, and I loved them for it,” Reed said.

The work eventually led to charges for things like throwing Molotov cocktails into a government building in Apple Valley, and setting a fire in a trash can inside a St. Paul high school cafeteria, among other things.

The people associated with the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct building arson have been ordered to pay $12 million in restitution. Others have been sentenced to years in prison — and the investigations are still happening now.

“This team will find who you are,” Reed said. “This is what we do.”

It’s unclear how long it will take to complete all of the related investigations. The team is also investigating fires from other parts of the past year.

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Click here to view persons of interest, and click here for more about ATF’s unrest arson investigations.

Erin Hassanzadeh