WASHINGTON — US federal authorities captured a Florida man with a criminal history, claims of a Filipino ancestry 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 US.
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.”
Sayoc makes repeated references to the Seminole Indian tribe on his Twitter feed but on his LinkedIn profile he mentions Filipino ancestry, saying his grandfather was a prominent surgeon in the Philippines.
He claims to have worked for the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, but the hotel and Seminole tribe said they have “no evidence” that he ever worked there or was a member of the tribe.
US media reported Sayoc had once danced as a male stripper, and The New York Daily News quoted an event promoter as saying the suspect would dance at strip clubs and ran a show called “Girls Night Out.”
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.
Prominent Dems targeted
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 —none of which detonated— 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.
Trump role alleged
The mail bombs, coming barely a week before major mid-term elections, sparked a heated national conversation about the hard-edged political climate and Trump’s role in fanning the flames. The President has 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, Trump 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.