A gay businessman who is charged with arson and insurance fraud won his right to represent himself June 22 in a case where he said someone else torched his Rollin Roots food truck.
Avonte Ahikim Hartsfield, 27, of Hillcrest, blamed the fire on someone committing hate crimes against him “because I’m black, because I’m gay,” he said in an interview with LGBTQ San Diego County News.
Hartsfield said his office was broken into and someone left a noose. He also had planned to open a restaurant downtown which suffered some vandalism as well, he said. He recalled someone had cut power lines to his truck before the fire.
Hartsfield said he reported these allegations to San Diego Police.
“If San Diego Police did their jobs, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Hartsfield, who claims that police only investigated him and not other suspects. He blames the problem on “systemic racism.”
The grand theft charge against Hartsfield alleges he accepted donations under false pretenses from GoFundMe fundraising campaigns, according to Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner.
He received a $20,000 donation from Sycuan tribal officials and reportedly $100,000 from others many months before any charges were filed in November of 2022.
“I don’t want to say anything about the GoFundMe donations,” Hartsfield said.
Hartsfield met with San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino and Hartsfield’s attorney, Angela Santamaria, in a closed hearing to discuss Hartsfield’s complaints just before he was to have a preliminary hearing on June 22.
Afterwards in open court, Hartsfield said he wanted to represent himself and fire his attorney. Maino strongly urged against it in court.
“I think it’s extremely unwise to represent yourself,” the judge told Hartsfield.
“I’m a pretty competent person,” Hartsfield said in an interview after the hearing. “I feel confident they [prosecution] have no case.”
Hartsfield is charged with arson in the Oct. 3, 2021 blaze that destroyed his vegan food truck in Kearny Mesa and defrauding an insurer.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which also include presenting a false claim, presenting false information to support an insurance claim, and grand theft.
Maino asked Taschner what the maximum sentence would be if Hartsfield wwe to be convicted and she said it could be eight years and four months in state prison.
“Clearly there are dangers if you represent yourself,” Maino told Hartsfield. “Do you understand the court can’t give you special treatment?”
“Right. Yes,” Hartsfield responded.
Judge Maino also told Hartsfield that if he violates any rules, he would lose his privilege to act as his own attorney and would be assigned another lawyer.
Maino then granted Hartsfield’s request, saying, “I think he is capable of representing himself.”
Hartsfield then fired Santamaria and the lawyer left the hearing. Hartsfield told the judge he needed a delay to prepare for the preliminary hearing as he had to read 3,000 pages of discovery. It was rescheduled for July 17.
Approximately 8-10 witnesses who were there to testify then left the courtroom with the prosecutor.
Hartsfield told a reporter that he fired his attorney for “ineffective representation,” saying she did not return his phone calls. He said the case was delayed, “but not by me.”
“I feel I must vigorously defend myself, and I feel I shouldn’t have to,” he said.
The details of the cause of fire have not been made public, but will likely be aired at the July 17 hearing.
Hartsfield remains free on his own recognizance.