The prime suspect in a string of mail bombs targeting prominent Democrats was essentially homeless in South Florida, living in his van and also building his dangerous devices in the vehicle, law enforcement sources told the Miami Herald on Friday.
Federal investigators towed the vehicle away from the parking lot at an AutoZone in Plantation shortly after arresting Cesar Sayoc, a 56-year-old ardent bodybuilder, former stripper and self-described entertainment promoter from Aventura with a lengthy list of arrests — including for a bomb threat in Miami-Dade in 2002 over a pricey electric bill.
His van, plastered with attacks on critics of President Donald Trump, is considered critical in the federal case against Sayoc because it is full of bomb-making materials and other evidence linking him to the mailing of more than a dozen potentially explosive devices from South Florida to political targets around the country, sources said. It is believed he purchased the pipe bomb materials over the counter from area retailers.
Authorities also believe that Sayoc had been living in the large older-model camper-style van for some time, though his official address was an Aventura condo where his mother lives.
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He recently had apparently worked as a pizza delivery man at a Papa John’s in Hollywood. Richard Founds and Jim Pinder, two homeless men, said Sayoc would park his van next to a nearby funeral home to sleep. But he was often generous, Founds said. “He walked by discreetly and gave us a dollar or two and he parked his truck around the corner.”
Sometimes, they saw the van parked on side streets with its inside lights burning bright, Pinder said. “We never knew what he did, it was strange.”
Photos of the van, posted by a Twitter user who said he saw the car at a stoplight in April, show rifle scope crosshairs placed over the faces of Hillary Clinton, progressive filmmaker Michael Moore and President Barack Obama. Another said “CNN Sucks,” along with an image of Trump standing on a tank in front of fireworks and an American flag.
Sayoc was being held at the federal detention center in Miami, after being questioned by FBI agents, and is expected to make his first appearance in federal court on Monday to face five federal charges, including illegal mailing of explosives. He is going to be transferred to New York for prosecution.
A trail of telltale clues helped investigators quickly focus the nationwide manhunt on Sayoc. Among the connections: a latent fingerprint on an envelope sent to California Rep. Maxine Waters along with DNA residue on two devices sent to Waters and former President Barack Obama. They matched with DNA records collected from Sayoc in previous Florida criminal cases. Agents also scrutinized Sayoc’s voluminous social media posts, his cellphone records and his movements throughout South Florida to carry out the threats against Democratic targets.
“We do believe that we’ve caught the right person,” FBI director Chris Wray said at a news conference in Washington. “Once I knew they [the FBI] had a print, I was pretty confident we’d be able to find the right person.”
Wray would not say if there might be other potential suspects associated with the packages, citing an ongoing investigation. “This is phenomenal work with the greatest pressure under an incredibly tight time frame,” Wray said. “We see unbelievable work like this on TV and in Hollywood but to see it up close in reality is something to behold.”
Sayoc was formally charged Friday afternoon with interstate transportation of an explosive, illegal mailing of explosives, threats against a former president and other high-ranking former government officials, threatening interstate communications and assaulting federal officers. The five charges carry a potential 58 years in total jail time if Sayoc is convicted, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
President Trump, in a speech given shortly after Sayoc’s arrest, praised the speed of the investigation and condemned acts of political violence.
“Congratulations to all law enforcement. We have the best in the world and they just showed it,” he said.
The arrest was made at an AutoZone in Plantation instead of his home to avoid any potential dangerous confrontation, sources told the Miami Herald. News partner CBS4 reports a “loud explosion” was heard at the time of the arrest, possibly from an FBI flash bomb device.
Sayoc was a frequent poster on social media sites and his Twitter and Facebook accounts were filled with pro-Trump memes and attacks on Democrats — including a string linking Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor, with billionaire George Soros, a major party donor and recipient of one of the menacing mailings. A body-builder, he also liked to post photos of himself bare-chested and flexing, in one, sprawled across a motorcycle.
In February 2004, Sayoc was arrested and charged by the Broward Sheriff’s Office with four counts of possession of steroids with intent to sell — a felony charge. He pled not guilty and the case was dismissed a year later.
Court records show he had nearly a dozen past arrests, including one involving a bomb threat in 2002 in Miami-Dade to a Florida Power & Light employee over a expensive electric bill.
“The defendant then stated that he didn’t deserve it and that he was going to blow up FPL,” according to files released by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. “FPL will get what they deserve and will be worse than 9/11.”
Sayoc also told an employee he “was going to blow her head off,” according to the case file. The call was recorded and Sayoc was later arrested by FDLE agents.
Other cases included grand theft and battery in Broward County. In 1994, a woman who appears to be his grandmother filed and then quickly withdrew a criminal complaint against him for domestic violence.
State records show he’s a serial entrepreneur, listing him most recently as a manager of a Hallandale Beach catering company. But the mailing address for the catering company was a post office box. In a deposition in a federal lawsuit, he said had worked as a dancer and had spent 35 years the strip club industry. His LinkedIn account listed his occupations as “promoter, booking agent, live entertainment, owner, choreographer.”
Records indicate at one point he lived with his parents in an Aventura condo. He also has used a variety of names across social media and legal documents, including Cesar Altieri, Caesar Altieri, Caesar Altieri Sayoc, Ceasar Altieri Randazzo or Julus Cesar Milan.
Federal investigators quickly centered the investigation of the 13 crudely fashioned “pipe bombs” sent to top Trump critics, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, on a massive mail sorting facility in Opa-locka. At least seven of the devices were routed through Opa-locka, according to a federal criminal compliant charging Sayoc. But law enforcement sources believe they will be able to trace all the mailings to the facility, which processes hundreds of thousands of packages daily to and from South Florida.
Each of the packages contained six inches of PVC pipe, a small clock battery, wiring and “energetic material” that could be potentially explosive if exposed to heat, shock or friction, FBI director Wray said at the news conference.
“These are not hoax devices,” he said.
Some of the packages included pictures of the intended recipients marked with a red “X.”
The devices have been recovered in New York, Washington, D.C., California and South Florida, all with the return address of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office. Several words, including her name, were misspelled on the packages.
Four new packages were discovered Friday. The intended recipients were New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and California Sen Kamala Harris. Nextgen America head Tom Steyer, a wealthy donor to progressive candidates, also was targeted with a mailing, which was recovered in a California postal facility. The first package was found Monday in the home mailbox of Democratic megadonor George Soros.
The arrest came a couple of hours after President Trump cast doubt on the timing of “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” in a tweet.
Miami Herald staff writers Martin Vassolo, Colleen Wright, Rene Rodriguez, Sarah Blaskey, Maya Kaufman, Pierre Taylor and Alex Daugherty contributed to this story.