ederal authorities on Friday captured a Florida man with a criminal history and a fervor for President Donald Trump and accused him of sending at least 13 mail bombs to prominent Democrats, capping a nationwide search in a case that spread fear of election-season violence with little precedent in the U.S.
Justice Department officials announced five federal charges against Cesar Sayoc, 56, of Aventura, Florida, and revealed that DNA and a fingerprint found on an envelope package helped them identify the suspect after a five-day, coast-to-coast investigation. Even as he was arrested and charged, investigators scrutinized new suspicious packages believed to be tied to his plot.
FBI officials did not disclose a motive, although Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested politics may have played a role, noting Sayoc appeared to be a “partisan.” Those who saw him in the neighborhood, unmistakable in a white van plastered with Trump’s image and political stickers, described him as unsettling and troubled.
Sayoc’s social media profiles portray a deeply disaffected conservative who trafficked in online conspiracy theories, parody accounts and name-calling. He called a Florida school shooting survivor a “fake phony,” peddled theories about George Soros, the billionaire political donor targeted this week by a package bomb and denigrated other Democrats who were later the intended recipients of explosive packages.
An amateur body builder and former stripper who once spent time on probation for a bomb threat charge, Sayoc first registered as a Republican voter just ahead of the March 2016 Republican primary and quickly identified himself as a proud Trump supporter, tweeting and posting on Facebook videos that appear to show him at Trump rallies.
He appeared to be to living in his van, showering on the beach or at a local fitness center.
Sayoc’s arrest Friday was a major breakthrough in the nationwide manhunt following the discovery of explosive devices addressed to prominent Democrats and other frequent targets of conservative ire, including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and the cable network CNN. On Friday, new packages addressed to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper were intercepted — both similar to those containing pipe bombs discovered earlier in the week. Investigators in California scrutinized a package sent to Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, her office said, and one sent to Tom Steyer, a billionaire businessman who has campaigned for months for Trump’s impeachment.
The mail bombs, coming barely a week before major midterm elections, sparked a heated national conversation about the hard-edged political climate and Trump’s role in fanning the flames. The president as branded the media the “enemy of the people” and hurled harsh, personal insults at others targeted in the plot.
Shortly after Sayoc was detained, Trump declared that “we must never allow political violence to take root in America” and that Americans “must unify.”
Speaking later to reporters Friday evening before leaving for a political rally in North Carolina, said he knows Sayoc supported him but that he himself “bears no blame.” Hours earlier Trump had complained via tweet that “this ‘bomb’ stuff” was taking attention away from the upcoming election and that critics were wrongly blaming him.
FBI and police officials worked swiftly to untangle clues this week as the packages mounted, sometimes several in the same day.
The big break came when a fingerprint found on one of the packages, intended for California Rep. Maxine Waters, matched a fingerprint of Sayoc’s on file with Florida authorities. A DNA sample from a device intended for Obama similarly matched the suspect’s DNA, the FBI said.
An additional clue: Misspellings from his online posts matched mistakes found on the packages, according to an 11-page criminal complaint that included the formal charges of threatening former presidents and transporting explosives across state lines.
Some packages included photographs of the intended recipients marked with a red “x,” the FBI said. The packages contained timers and batteries, but were not rigged to explode upon opening. Officials were uncertain whether the devices were poorly designed or never intended to cause physical harm.
Authorities noted that they included “energetic material.” A footnote to the charging document said such explosive material “gives off heat and energy through a rapid exothermic reaction when initiated by heat, shock or friction.”
“These are not hoax devices,” FBI Director Chris Wray said.
Sayoc was arrested near an auto parts store in Plantation, Florida, north of Miami. Across the street, Thomas Fiori, a former federal law enforcement officer, said he saw about 50 armed officers swarm a man standing outside a white van. They ordered him to the ground, Fiori said, and he did not resist.
“He had that look of, ‘I’m done, I surrender,'” Fiori said.
Sayoc appears to have been living on the margins, regularly running into trouble with the law and struggling to make ends meet. He was repeatedly arrested for theft in the 1990s, faced felony charges of possession of anabolic steroids in 2004 and was convicted of grand theft in 2014. In 2002, he served a year of probation for a felony charge of threatening to throw or place a bomb.
His lawyer in that case said the charge stemmed from a heated conversation with a Florida utility representative.
Ronald Lowy, a Miami attorney, said Sayoc showed no ability at the time to back up his threat with any bomb-making expertise.
Sayoc had $4,175 in personal property and more than $21,000 in debts when filed for bankruptcy in 2012. “Debtor lives with mother, owns no furniture,” his lawyer indicated in a property list.
He had been an amateur body builder. More recently he was seen at an LA Fitness in Aventura, regularly showering at the gym but not working out, said Edgar Lopez, 48, a therapist who works out at the gym.
Marc Weiss saw Sayoc nearly every morning at 6 a.m. for the last four or five months
“I’ve seen the guy maybe 80 times and I never said a word to him because I had a feeling he was a little off,” said Weiss, a 56-year-old building superintendent who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. “This guy had an air about him that was unsettling.”
Sayoc’s political awakening appears to have coincided with Trump’s rise. He registered to vote in Florida in March 2016 and has voted early since, records show.
Documents released Friday by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office show Sayoc reported in May 2015 that more than $40,000 in goods were stolen from his van and an attached trailer, including 11 pieces of Donald Trump-brand clothing valued at $7,150. Specifics are not included, but Trump has a line of suits, shirts, ties and accessories.
The report shows detectives were never able to confirm whether the theft actually happened, and no arrests were made.
Most of those targeted this week were past or present U.S. officials, but packages also were sent to actor Robert De Niro and billionaire George Soros. The bombs have been sent across the country — from New York, Delaware and Washington, D.C., to Florida and California, where Waters was targeted. They bore the return address of Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Ken Thomas, Jill Colvin, Michael Biesecker, Stephen Braun and Chad Day in Washington; Terry Spencer, Kelli Kennedy and Curt Anderson in Florida; Jim Mustian, Deepti Hajela, Tom Hays and Michael R. Sisak in New York and Raphael Satter in Paris contributed to this report.
For the AP’s complete coverage of the mail-bomb scare: https://apnews.com/PipeBombAttacks
A Florida man with a long criminal history was taken into custody Friday in the nationwide mail-bomb scare targeting prominent Democrats who have traded criticism with President Donald Trump, a first break in a case that had seized the national conversation and spread fear of election-season violence with little precedent in the U.S.
Law enforcement officials identified the man as Cesar Sayoc, 56, of Aventura, Florida. He was picked up at an auto parts store in the nearby city of Plantation. Court records show Sayoc has a history of arrests for theft, illegal possession of steroids and a 2002 charge of making a bomb threat.
It was not immediately clear whether Sayoc had been formally charged in the current case.
Law enforcement officers were seen on television examining a white van, its windows covered with an assortment of stickers, outside the Plantation auto parts store. Authorities covered the vehicle with a blue tarp and took it away on the back of a flatbed truck.
The stickers included images of Trump, American flags and what appeared to be logos of the Republican National Committee and CNN, though the writing surrounding those images was unclear.
The development came amid a nationwide manhunt for the person responsible for a series of explosive devices addressed to prominent Democrats including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Trump, after Sayoc was apprehended, declared that “we must never allow political violence take root in America” and Americans “must unify.” As in comments earlier in the week, he did not mention that the package recipients were all Democrats or officials in Obama’s administration, in addition to CNN, a news network he criticizes almost daily.
Earlier Friday, he complained that “this ‘bomb’ stuff” was taking attention away from the upcoming election and said critics were wrongly blaming him and his heated rhetoric.
The Justice Department scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference in Washington that was to include New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill, whose department investigated the mailings with the FBI.
Law enforcement officials said they had intercepted a dozen packages in states across the country. None had exploded, and it wasn’t immediately clear if they were intended to cause physical harm or simply sow fear and anxiety.
Earlier Friday, authorities said suspicious packages addressed to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper — both similar to those containing pipe bombs sent to other prominent critics of Trump— had been intercepted.
Investigators believe the mailings were staggered. The U.S. Postal Service searched their facilities 48 hours ago and the most recent packages didn’t turn up. Officials don’t think they were sitting in the system without being spotted. They were working to determine for sure. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Online court records show that Sayoc in 2002 was arrested and served a year of probation for a felony charge of threatening to throw or place a bomb. No further details were available about the case.
Sayoc was convicted in 2014 for grand theft and misdemeanor theft of less than $300, and in 2013 for battery. In 2004, he faced several felony charges for possession of a synthetic anabolic-androgenic steroid. He also had several arrests for theft in the 1990s.
He filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2012, informing the court he had $4,175 in personal property and more than $21,000 in debts. His name is also listed on business records tied to dry cleaning and catering businesses. Records show he was born in New York and according to an online resume he attended college in North Carolina.
“Debtor lives with mother, owns no furniture,” Sayoc’s lawyer indicated in a property list.
Investigators were analyzing the innards of the crude devices to reveal whether they were intended to detonate or simply sow fear just before Election Day.
Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the devices, containing timers and batteries, were not rigged to explode upon opening. But they were uncertain whether the devices were poorly designed or never intended to cause physical harm.
Most of those targeted were past or present U.S. officials, but one was sent to actor Robert De Niro and billionaire George Soros. The bombs have been sent across the country – from New York, Delaware and Washington, D.C., to Florida and California, where Rep. Maxine Waters was targeted. They bore the return address of Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
The common thread among the bomb targets was obvious: their critical words for Trump and his frequent, harsher criticism in return.
The package to Clapper was addressed to him at CNN’s Midtown Manhattan address. Clapper, a frequent Trump critic, told CNN that he was not surprised he was targeted and that he considered the actions “definitely domestic terrorism.”
The devices were packaged in manila envelopes and carried U.S. postage stamps. They were being examined by technicians at the FBI’s forensic lab in Quantico, Virginia.
The packages stoked nationwide tensions ahead of the Nov. 6 election to determine control of Congress — a campaign both major political parties have described in near-apocalyptic terms. Politicians from both parties used the threats to decry a toxic political climate and lay blame.
The bombs are about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and packed with powder and broken glass, according to a law enforcement official who viewed X-ray images. The official said the devices were made from PVC pipe and covered with black tape.
The first bomb discovered was delivered Monday to the suburban New York compound of Soros, a major contributor to Democratic causes. Soros has called Trump’s presidency “dangerous.”
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Ken Thomas, Jill Colvin and Chad Day in Washington and Jim Mustian, Deepti Hajela, Tom Hays and Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this report.