South Florida

His mail bombs didn’t detonate but they spread fear. He cried as he pleaded guilty

Cesar Sayoc is a man of many mugshots.
Cesar Sayoc is a man of many mugshots.

A South Florida man pleaded guilty Thursday to sending pipe bombs to CNN and prominent critics of President Donald Trump in a wave of attacks that harmed no one but spread fear of political violence across the U.S. for days leading up to last fall’s midterm elections.

Cesar Sayoc, 57 — a former bodybuilder, stripper and pizza delivery worker who was living out of his van before his arrest in Plantation last October — sobbed as he entered the plea before a federal judge in New York.

“I’m extremely sorry,” he said, adding that he never intended for the devices to explode.

He could get life in prison at sentencing Sept. 12 on 65 counts, including using weapons of mass destruction and mailing explosives with intent to kill. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped a charge that carried a mandatory life sentence.

Sayoc was accused of sending rudimentary bombs — none of which detonated — to 16 targets, including former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden, several members of Congress — including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office in Sunrise — former President Barack Obama and actor Robert De Niro. Devices were also mailed to CNN offices in New York and Atlanta.

Sayoc made the so-called pipe bombs in his van with rudimentary materials bought from stores in Broward, and he sent the explosive devices through a mail sorting facility in Opa-locka, according to federal law enforcement officials. The devices never posed a threat to their targets because they were so poorly made, officials said.

The bombs began turning up weeks before the hotly contested midterm elections, contributing to an already tense political environment.

“For five days in October 2018, Cesar Sayoc rained terror across the country, sending high-ranking officials and former elected leaders explosive packages through the mail,” Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. “Thankfully no one was hurt by these dangerous devices, but his actions left an air of fear and divisiveness in their wake.”

Sayoc was arrested in late October at a Plantation auto parts store. He had been living in a van plastered with Trump stickers and images of Trump opponents with cross hairs over their faces.

The van that Cesar Sayoc drove was festooned with stickers that hailed President Donald Trump and attacked his critics. The Sun Sentinel

On Thursday, he told the judge that he made objects designed to look like pipe bombs and filled them with explosive powder from fireworks.

“Did you intend they would explode?” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff asked.

“No, sir,” Sayoc said.

“What would prevent powder from fireworks from exploding?” Rakoff asked.

“I was aware of the risk they would explode,” Sayoc said.

The first of the bombs was discovered Oct. 22 in a mailbox at an estate in New York City’s northern suburbs owned by the billionaire George Soros, a liberal political activist and frequent subject of conspiracy theories.

A device addressed to the Clintons was discovered the next day, followed a day later by a slew of bombs found at the homes or offices of prominent Democrats. One, addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan, was sent to CNN in New York.

Others targeted included California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Over several days, investigators tracked the packages to a mail center in Opa-locka. Prosecutors said the evidence against Sayoc included DNA that linked him to 10 of the devices and fingerprints on two of them.

Sayoc, born in Brooklyn, struggled to make ends meet in South Florida. He grew up in North Miami Beach and did a variety of odd jobs, including working as a male stripper. He also had a criminal history, including shoplifting, steroid possession and making bomb threats against FPL employees.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.