Detroit — Federal prosecutors charged a Dearborn Heights man with arson Monday amid a spate of fires targeting people of Middle Eastern descent.

Nicholas Gerard Diedo, 35, is charged with torching the 315 North strip mall on Feb. 3 in Inkster, the latest accusation against a man arrested for crimes against people from the Middle East, according to a federal criminal complaint. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in federal prison.

Federal court records chronicle a sprawling arson investigation involving surveillance footage, a grappling hook and a string of suspicious fires involving Middle Eastern victims.

The Inkster fire followed several fires in nearby Dearborn Heights involving Middle Eastern victims, according to Andrea Rossman, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In April 2018, five vehicles were deliberately set on fire within one mile of Diedo's home.

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Surveillance footage of the strip mall fire last month at Inkster Road, south of Cherry Hill Road, showed an individual placing six one-gallon jugs containing what appeared to be gasoline in front of the strip mall. The individual tried to throw bricks through a window before igniting the fluid with a flare. 

The fire caused extensive damage and charred the strip mall and attracted the interest of ATF agents because businesses in the strip mall were engaged in interstate commerce.

The individual, dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt with thick white drawstrings, a black-and-white-mask, gray track-style pants with a black-and-white stripe down the sides, and dark-colored shoes, had a distinctive gait, according to the surveillance footage. He used long strides and leaned his head back as he walked while popping out his chest and swinging his arms behind him.

Within days of the fire, a source told investigators that Diedo was a suspect, according to the ATF agent.

Investigators soon learned Diedo had assaulted a man months earlier and the fight was recorded by a cell-phone camera, according to the ATF. In the video, investigators noted Diedo walked with a similar gait as the suspect in the Inkster arson, Rossman wrote in the complaint.

ATF agents learned about an earlier fire at the Inkster strip mall in April 2018 and surveillance video showed someone who resembled the suspect in the February 2019 arson.

"The video footage from April 20, 2018 shows the suspect attempting to throw a green rope with a hook-type device onto the roof that would possibly allow him/her to climb up onto the roof," the ATF agent wrote. "The suspect was then observed pouring an accelerant of what appears to be an orange Tide bottle in front of 315 North, pulling a flare out of the bag, and then lighting the accelerant starting a fire."

There were more fires.

In June 2018, Diedo's backyard neighbor reported someone torched their new BMW. Diedo was questioned by officers.

"One of the officers was able to smell a combination of lighter fluid and gasoline emanating from Diedo," the ATF agent wrote.

Diedo was arrested and investigators searched his home.

Officers found a water bottle filled with accelerant, a bottle of accelerant on a wooden deck, a blue bucket of burnt pieces of wood, gas cans, burnt sticks and noticed char marks on the cement in his backyard, according to the criminal complaint.

The BMW fire wasn't the first time Dearborn Heights Police linked Diedo to an arson.

In December 2017, Dearborn Heights officers suspected he was involved with two vehicle fires in the 26000 block of Ford Road, one mile from Diedo's home, according to the complaint.

The arson investigation intensified Monday.

ATF agents and local police searched Diedo's home and found the same sweatshirt seen in surveillance footage of the fires at the Inkster strip mall and a matching bag containing flares and a lighter, according to the criminal complaint.

Investigators also recovered a Molotov cocktail fashioned from a bottle of Kahlua liqueur that smelled like gasoline, and an empty one-gallon jug with a blue cap, which matched one seen on surveillance footage from the Feb. 3 fire. Under Diedo's bed, investigators found a grappling hook, the ATF agent wrote.

In the garage, investigators found a yellow Tide bottle that also smelled like gasoline, similar to one used in the April 2018 arson. 

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