San Diego Food Truck Owner Sentenced To More Than 5 Years In Prison For Arson, Insurance Fraud & Grand Theft

March 20, 2024

The owner of once-popular San Diego-based vegan food truck Rollin Roots has been sentenced to more than five years in prison after being found guilty of arson, insurance fraud and grand theft.

On Wednesday, February 21, 2024, Avonte Hartsfield was found guilty of arson by a jury of his peers for setting his Rollin Roots food truck on fire in San Diego's Kearny Mesa in October 2021. He has now been sentenced to serve five years and four months in state prison. A restitution hearing for the case is now scheduled for April 22, at 1:30pm at the San Diego Superior Court, Central Division, Central Courthouse in Department 1601.

Chef Avonte Hartsfield started his Rollin Roots concept in 2019 as The Source, a pop-up vegan food vendor at area farmers markets. Although he originally planned to open a full-scale restaurant, the pandemic and subsequent restrictions forced him to modify his business plan and he launched the Rollin Roots vegan food truck in August 2020, offering a menu of plant-based comfort foods. In late 2020, Hartsfield raised nearly $20,000 on GoFundMe, citing the perils of the pandemic as the reason he needed publicly-donated funds.
By late 2020/early 2021, Hartsfield made news through alleged instances of donating meals to the needy and offering a "pay whatever you can" model. In March 2021, Demetrius "Meech" Harmon, Founder Of You Matter University, announced he would be giving Rollin Roots $5,000 as part of a Twitter campaign dubbed "You Matter BHM Grant" in honor of Black History Month. In June 2021, Hartsfield also received a $25,000 grant as part of a non-profit partnership between celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the California Restaurant Foundation.
On October 3, 2021, a fire caused extensive damage to the Rollin Roots food truck at its location at 8040 Armour Street in Kearny Mesa, essentially totaling the vehicle. Hartsfield reported to the police that prior to the fire, he was subjected to break-ins, theft, vandalism, and a noose-shaped rope was left hanging from his office door. The investigation into the cause of the fire was previously concluded as "undetermined". Hartsfield continued to declare on his social media channels that the arson was part of an ongoing hate crime against him. 
Despite Hartsfield's conclusion the fire was caused by arson, a San Diego Police Department stated in October 2021 the incident was not being investigated as such. Following the well-publicized fire, Hartsfield received more than $100,000 in donations through a GoFundMe campaign, in addition to a $20,000 donation from San Diego-based Sycuan Casino, which helped Hartsfield obtain a replacement food truck.
Less than two weeks after the fire destroyed the first Rollin Roots food truck, Hartsfield was allegedly alerted while out of town in Texas that a brick was thrown through the window of the space that was planned to house his future restaurant at 807 F Street in downtown San Diego. The N-word was purportedly written on the brick and a big black "X" was reportedly spray painted across the building's window.

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, Avonte Hartsfield, then age 26, pled not guilty in San Diego Superior Court to charges of arson and fraud arising from the fire and subsequent events. Prosecutors alleged Hartsfield set the blaze "with fraudulent intent" and subsequently filed a fraudulent insurance claim. Hartsfield also faced a grand larceny charge linked to his raising more than $102,000 from over 2,100 supporters as part of a GoFundMe campaign, as well as receiving the $20,000 donation from Sycuan tribal officials.
Prosecutors claimed Hartsfield accepted such donations under false pretenses. Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner showed jurors surveillance footage from nearby business, which appeared to place Hartsfield's at the scene moments before the fire. The video presented a barefoot person with a dark beard, towel over their head, and wearing shorts approaching the vehicle before the blaze occurred. Hartsfield initially told police he only found the truck burned down the following day.

Hartsfield later changed his story, first stating there was a man armed with a gun, then claiming the fire was started by a faulty rice cooker. Prosecutors provided evidence that Hartsfield made suspicious internet searches leading up to the fire, including "quick car explosion" and other burning-related inquiries.

Hartsfield was adamant of his innocence on social media following the announcement of criminal charges, claiming the "police did not fully and properly investigate the case" and that his business was targeted. Following the news of his arraignment, GoFundMe began offering refunds to donors.

Hartsfield represented himself in court after firing his public defenders last year. He claimed his confession to police was false and coerced, and said he was home at the time of the fire. He accused prosecution of having "tunnel vision" and failing to investigate any other possibly suspects.

Avonte Hartsfield originally faced a prison term of up to seven years and four months after being convicted of charges of arson, insurance fraud and grand theft. After the verdict, Judge Kimberlee Lagotta ordered Hartsfield to remain in custody without bail. He was sentenced today to serve five years and four months. 

Hartsfield was also arrested in Los Angeles in late May 2023 and charged with resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, battery, attempted grand theft and other charges. He posted videos of the incident on his social media channels. He was subsequently convicted of illegally entering a non-commercial building, attempted grand theft of money, and battery on a person.