WASHINGTON >> A Florida man with a long criminal history was charged Friday in the nationwide mail-bomb scare targeting prominent Democrats who traded criticism with President Donald Trump, a significant break in a case that seized the national conversation and 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 a package helped them identify the suspect after a five-day investigation that heightened unease with each additional explosive discovery.
None of the bombs exploded, but FBI Director Chris Wray said Friday, “These are not hoax devices.”
Sayoc, an amateur bodybuilder who 16 years earlier was on probation for a bomb threat charge, has social media accounts that vilify Democrats and praise the president. Misspellings from his online posts matched mistakes found on the packages, according to an 11-page criminal complaint.
He registered as a Republican in Florida in March 2016, before the election that sent Trump to the White House, and voted early in subsequent elections, according to officials.
Friday’s arrest capped a nationwide manhunt for the sender of at least 13 explosive devices addressed to prominent Democrats including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. The case continued widening Friday with new 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 Trump critics. Even as Sayoc was detained, investigators in California scrutinized a package sent to Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, her office said.
Trump, after Sayoc was apprehended, declared that “we must never allow political violence take root in America” and that Americans “must unify.”
That marked a change in tone from his Twitter post earlier Friday complaining that “this ‘bomb’ stuff” was taking attention away from the upcoming election and that critics were wrongly blaming him and his heated rhetoric for stoking violence.
In his remarks after the arrest, as in his comments throughout the week, Trump 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.
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 heard a small explosion — possibly a “flash-bang” device police use as a distraction — and saw about 50 armed officers swarm a man standing outside a white van. They ordered Sayoc to the ground, Fiori said, and he did not resist.
“He had that look of, ‘I’m done, I surrender,’” Fiori said.
Officers were later seen examining the van, its windows covered with stickers. 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.
Law enforcement officials told the AP 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.
Authorities noted that they included “energetic material.” FBI Special Agent David Brown said in a footnote to the charging document that such explosive material “gives off heat and energy through a rapid exothermic reaction when initiated by heat, shock or friction.”
Investigators believe the mailings were staggered rather than sent all at once. Officials were working to make sure they hadn’t overlooked others.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions cautioned that Sayoc had only been charged, not convicted. But he said, “Let this be a lesson to anyone regardless of their political beliefs that we will bring the full force of law against anyone who attempts to use threats, intimidation and outright violence to further an agenda. We will find you; we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
Court records showed convictions of Sayoc for grand theft and misdemeanor theft and a 2002 arrest on a felony charge of threatening to throw or place a bomb. His lawyer in that case told the AP it involved a heated conversation with a Florida utility representative.
Sayoc 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.
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 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: officeholders and others who have criticized Trump and have been harshly criticized 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 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.”