Feds Charge Florida Man With Mailing Improvised Bombs To Trump Political Critics

Originally published on October 26, 2018 9:20 pm

Updated at 9:19 p.m. ET

The Justice Department charged a Florida man on Friday in connection with a wave of improvised explosive devices sent to political critics of President Trump.

Cesar Altieri Sayoc, 56, is facing five federal charges after he was arrested in Plantation, Fla., following a national investigation. He faces a potential total of 48 years in prison.

Earlier Friday, the Justice Department had erroneously said Sayoc could face up to 58 years in prison.

The homemade bombs intercepted or discovered this week "are not hoax devices," said FBI Director Christopher Wray during a news conference with law enforcement officials Friday.

They contained "energetic materials" packed into PVC pipes and could have been dangerous, he said, although none of them exploded and no one was hurt.

Asked at the same news conference why it appeared that Sayoc allegedly only targeted liberal political figures, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said "he may have been a partisan ... appears to be partisan, but that will be determined as the case goes forward."

Neither Sessions nor Wray would directly address questions from journalists about political motives and the packages discovered across the country this week.

FBI and other investigators surrounded a white van believed to be connected to the case in a parking lot in Plantation; their inspection was shown live on cable TV and the van was loaded onto a flatbed truck.

Court documents later established that the van, which was covered with pro-Trump and anti-CNN images, belonged to Sayoc; a former attorney who had represented him told NPR Sayoc has been living in a van for some time.

The president reacts

Trump hailed law enforcement agencies in a statement at the White House and condemned the prospective threats to political leaders.

"These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country," he said. "We must never allow political violence to take root in America. We cannot let it happen."

Later, Trump was asked about the apparent support for him expressed by the suspect on social media and on his van, which bears an illustration that appears to depict Trump standing on a tank holding a rifle before an American flag with fireworks exploding in the background.

"Did you see your face on that van, sir?" Trump was asked.

"I did not," the president said. "I did not see my face on the van. I don't know. I heard he was a person that preferred me over others, but I did not see that."

Trump did reject the idea that he or his statements might be in some way culpable in the attacks. The president alluded to the shooting last year at a mostly Republican baseball practice outside Washington, D.C., in which Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was badly wounded.

"There's no blame. There's no anything," Trump said. "If you look at what happened to Steve Scalise, that was from a supporter of a different party."

More suspicious packages

The announcement of the charges followed the discovery Friday of more packages bound for political foes of Trump.

Two were recovered in California: one addressed to liberal donor Tom Steyer, who is leading a campaign to impeach Trump, and one addressed to California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Harris was mentioned in the criminal complaint as a target known to federal investigators. Though Steyer was not in the complaint, in a tweet Friday night the FBI confirmed a package addressed to Steyer had been recovered, suggesting a 14th package linked to the allegations against Sayoc. It wasn't clear whether the parcel he addressed in his statement might be connected to this case.

Earlier, a package was discovered in Florida addressed to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and one in New York City to former intelligence boss James Clapper.

The recovery of those envelopes brought the known total to 14 parcels addressed to 12 targets, all of whom are critics or opponents of the president.

Federal authorities have acknowledged that they don't know how many total packages there are and that there could be more moving through the mail as the search for them continues.

Clapper, who is a commentator on CNN, called in to the cable network to say on the air, "This is definitely domestic terrorism. No question about it in my mind."

Although the homemade pipe bombs have not exploded, authorities say they are treating them as "live devices," not "hoax devices," New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill said Thursday.

Authorities who have discovered the parcels around the country — in New York, outside Washington, D.C., in Florida and in Los Angeles — are sending them to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va., for examination there.

The Sunshine State

At least one of the packages passed through a large U.S. mail sorting facility in Opa-locka, Fla., near Miami, according to multiple reports.

The Miami Herald, citing a federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation, reports that the package sent from the facility is likely the one that ended up on Wednesday at the South Florida office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

That package was originally sent to the office of former Attorney General Eric Holder. It was not delivered and was instead sent to the labeled return address — listed as Wasserman Schultz's office.

Before the package arrived there, it was rerouted through the Opa-locka mail sorting facility, the Herald reports.

Federal agents and the Miami-Dade County Police Department searched the facility on Thursday night, according to reports from the Herald, Reuters and The Associated Press. No potentially explosive devices were found, according to reports.

"A search of a postal database suggested at least some may have been mailed from Florida," the AP reported.

Hundreds of thousands of packages pour into the facility every day — it's the size of five football fields, the Herald reports. Miami-Dade Police Department specialists worked at the mail center on Friday morning, the agency said.

The attacks

The packages began to show up on Monday, starting with billionaire George Soros, a major donor to Democrats and Democratic causes.

In addition to Steyer, Harris, Booker, Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan, one package was addressed to former President Barack Obama, two to former Vice President Joe Biden, one to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one to former Attorney General Eric Holder and two to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. One was also addressed to the actor Robert De Niro, a harsh Trump critic.

De Niro included a political call-out in his statement about the packages on Friday morning.

"I thank God no one's been hurt, and I thank the brave and resourceful security and law enforcement people for protecting us," he said. "There's something more powerful than bombs, and that's your vote. People must vote!"

Trump sounded the same note when he addressed the parcel attacks Friday morning on Twitter.

Trump's use of sarcasm quotes around "bomb" appeared to be an allusion to skepticism voiced by some former investigators and explosives specialists about the devices. As one expert told NPR, the apparently homemade devices look as though they might include hazardous materials but not as though they could explode.

The president changed his tone later in the day after Sayoc's arrest was announced.

A wide investigation continues, with the FBI, the Postal Service and other federal agencies working with state and local authorities.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Four days after suspicious packages began arriving in the mail for prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump, a suspect is in custody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We have arrested Cesar Sayoc in connection with this investigation.

SHAPIRO: That's FBI Director Christopher Wray announcing the capture. NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas joins us now with details. And Ryan, walk us through the drama this morning and the capture of the suspect.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, we knew last night that the investigation was focusing on two places, New York and South Florida in particular. And this morning, authorities arrested Sayoc at an AutoZone store north of Miami. There was TV footage showing FBI officials and other law enforcement officers taking custody of a white van that was plastered with pro-Trump stickers near an AutoZone store there. A family attorney says that the van is Sayoc's. Now a criminal complaint has been filed against him in federal court in New York. He faces five counts in all, including illegally mailing explosives and threatening former presidents as well as others.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a little bit about the clues and the evidence that led the FBI to him?

LUCAS: It was actually a clue from one of the packages. FBI director Christopher Wray says that the FBI was able to pull a fingerprint off of one of those bubble-lined manila envelopes that we've talked about a lot over the past week. That fingerprint matched Sayoc's.

Wray says there's also a possible DNA connection from some of the homemade pipe bombs that were sent in two separate packages. Those appear to match Sayoc as well. And authorities have also identified a Twitter account that they say belonged to him. And the clue there was some of the words that were misspelled on the packages matched the misspelling on the Twitter account.

SHAPIRO: Wow. I know that you, our librarians, others at NPR have been looking into his background today. Tell us what you've learned about him.

LUCAS: Well, he's 56 years old. He is a resident of South Florida. He registered as a Republican in March of 2016. He has a pretty lengthy criminal history in Florida that includes charges of felony theft and drugs. He was also arrested over a possible bomb threat in 2002. He appears to have really kind of struggled for a very long time to find his place, to maintain a steady income. For example, he filed for bankruptcy back in 2012. On that form, he said that he lived with his mother, that he didn't own any furniture. His occupation on that form, though, he listed as store manager.

SHAPIRO: Today had kind of the hallmarks of a climax of the investigation with the FBI director, the attorney general all talking about it. Now that he's in custody, is that it? What happens next?

LUCAS: Well, the FBI will want to know whether Sayoc was working alone, whether there was somebody who was helping him with this. They'll also want to know whether there are any more packages that were sent but are unaccounted for yet 'cause remember; there were more discovered just this morning. There could still be more out there.

As things stand now, Wray says that each of the 13 devices that have been confirmed had 6 inches of PVC pipe, a small clock, a battery. There was wiring and a potential explosive material. He says that lab analysts are still examining those, but he made clear that these are not hoax devices.

SHAPIRO: And of course one big question is motive. Do you have any information about why he allegedly sent these packages to prominent Democrats, CNN, critics of President Trump and targets of President Trump's criticism?

LUCAS: Well, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked that exact question this afternoon. He did not want to say much on the topic. All that he would say is that Sayoc appears to be a partisan, but that will be determined by the facts of the case. I'll say that I've looked through his Twitter postings. There was a lot of pro-Trump sentiment in there, a lot of vitriol directed at Democrats. Authorities of course already have their eyes on that account - so definitely something that authorities are taking a look at.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas following the investigation and today's arrest. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.