Miami-Dade County

He plotted to bomb a Miami mall. He'll serve 17.5 years in prison, then be deported

Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater
Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater

Vicente A. Solano would seem an unlikely supporter of the Islamic State, the barbaric terrorist group notorious for beheading its hostages on video.

Solano, after all, is a Christian who was raised in a large family and baptized in the Evangelical Church in Honduras. After a hurricane devastated Central America in 1998, he came to Miami with no money and a sixth-grade education but also a strong work ethic that spurred him to hold down warehouse and painting jobs at minimum wage.

"He comes from a humble background," said Abigail Becker, a lawyer with the Federal Public Defender's Office. "He has worked hard to make ends meet at menial jobs."

But last fall Solano shed his seemingly mild-mannered persona and became increasingly angry about his life in America. He started making ISIS propaganda videos and condemning the United States. And in October, he tried to blow up the sprawling Dolphin Mall in west Miami-Dade before he was stopped by FBI agents who had engaged him in an undercover sting operation.

On Friday, Solano, 53, was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison, after pleading guilty in March to attempting to provide material support to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Becker, the defense lawyer, had argued for 16 years, saying he was not a typical jihadist collaborating with an extreme Islamist group. Federal prosecutor Karen Gilbert had countered that Solano deserved 20 years, the maximum penalty.

U.S. District Judge Paul Huck settled on a prison term between that range, but not because he believed Solano deserved a break. Huck said he didn't see the point of keeping him in the United States for the full 20 years at taxpayer expense, when he will be deported to Honduras at the end of his sentence.

Huck painted Solano's crime in the worst possible light, differing with the defense's argument that he was the target of an FBI sting operation who should not be viewed like an actual terrorist.

"He never communicated with anyone actually involved with a terrorist group," Becker said, stressing that Solano was encouraged to make the ISIS videos by an FBI confidential informant. "Mr. Solano is not sophisticated. ... That's simply not him."

But Huck reminded Becker that, regardless of the FBI undercover operation, Solano intended to kill shoppers at the Dolphin Mall with a bomb loaded with nails.

"Are there any offenses that are more serious than this one?" Huck told the public defender. "I can't think of one, except maybe some form of treason."

Vicente A. Solano

The judge zeroed in on the anger Solano displayed on his homemade ISIS videos toward the the country that took him in as an immigrant, the United States. "I heard a very angry person who wanted nothing more than to take this country down — not just this country, but innocent people in a mall," Huck said.

Solano, who speaks only Spanish, said little at his sentencing hearing. Becker said on his behalf that he was too emotional and nervous to speak, noting that he wanted her to say he was "deeply sorry" for his crime.

What is known about Solano is that he acted alone — a frustrated man who had changed his Facebook profile name to “Abad Solano” after developing a hostility toward President Donald Trump because of his disparaging remarks about Hispanic immigrants during the 2016 election, federal prosecutor Gilbert pointed out at Solano's detention hearing in October.

Solano, who had temporary protected status in the U.S., was arrested on Oct. 20 on an initial charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill shoppers at the food court in the mall. That charge, which carried up to life in prison, was dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to trying to provide material support to ISIS, which carried lesser punishment.

Solano, who had a minor criminal history and was living in a rented room with a Miami family, appeared on the FBI's radar last year, thanks to an informant. Solano told the informant about his desire to bomb a crowded Miami-Dade mall on Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, according to the FBI. The informant said he could introduce Solano to someone who could assist him, but he needed proof that his intentions were for real. In response, Solano produced three ISIS propaganda videos.

Solano texted the informant the videos, which featured a man wearing a black mask and shirt, standing in front of a black flag identical to one used by ISIS, according to an FBI affidavit. Despite Solano's professed loyalty, there was no evidence suggesting that ISIS representatives directed Solano to carry out the mall bombing.

In one of the videos, Solano spoke in Spanish, saying: “I am here because I like the way that ISIS confronts the United States and the countries of the coalition. They’re strong. It’s a group that is growing in social media. I love that there is going to be a holy war. ...

“The United States is the most terrorist country of them all,” Solano continued. “It invades when it wants to and when it’s convenient for them. That is why I am joining the Islamic group, the holy war, in the name of Allah, of our leader Abu.”

In other parts of the videos, Solano mentioned the 2013 deadly terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon and a 2015 sting operation in Key West, where Harlem Suarez tried to set off a bomb at a public beach. The bomb was inoperative, provided to him by FBI undercover operatives — just as in the Dolphin Mall sting.

Solano made the three ISIS propaganda videos in his room and kept a sketch of a bomb diagram. He told the informant last September that he wanted to “set off a bomb and [had] the balls to do it.”

The FBI deployed not only the informant but also two undercover employees to interact with Solano and help him assemble an inert bomb that he was led to believe could be detonated with a cellphone. They all met at his apartment, a local hotel, in their vehicles, at parking lots and at the “specified mall,” which is not named in the FBI affidavit but the Miami Herald learned is the Dolphin Mall.

“What I want to achieve is to send a message,” Solano was recorded saying on Oct. 13, one week before he attempted the mall bombing. “Because I have wanted to do it, because I have resentment inside, to demonstrate to [the United States].”

Solano discussed buying materials for a pressure cooker bomb, placing it in luggage and detonating the device at a food court with a cellphone, the affidavit said. He further discussed making a sketch of the targeted area, wearing a disguise and hiding the bomb in a shopping bag.

Solano went to a hardware store to buy screws and other materials for making a bomb. One of the FBI undercover employees also purchased items for the device.

Solano met up with the two FBI operatives at a hotel to put the bomb together — not realizing that “the device was inert and could never actually explode,” the affidavit said. “While in the hotel room, Solano practiced arming the device.”

Solano left the hotel room with one of the FBI employees and together they drove to the Dolphin Mall.

“When they arrived at the mall, Solano took the steps that he believed would arm the device and the timer began to count down,” the affidavit said. “Solano exited [the undercover employee’s] vehicle and began to walk towards the previously determined mall entrance.

“Solano was taken into custody prior to entering the specified mall.”

In recent years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami has obtained convictions against Suarez, the Key West man who plotted to blow up the sham bomb while supporting a foreign terrorist organization, and James Medina, a Hollywood man who tried to bomb a synagogue in Aventura. Suarez, 25, was sentenced to life in prison. Medina, 41, received a 25-year prison term at his sentencing in November but was placed in a U.S. prison's medical facility because he suffers from acute psychosis.