Friend who supplied rifles to San Bernardino terrorists agrees to plead guilty

The man who purchased two rifles used in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attacks will plead guilty to federal terrorism charges this week, ending a series of criminal court cases that followed one of the deadliest terror attacks committed on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Enrique Marquez Jr., a close friend of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook, will enter pleas resolving the two most serious charges he faced, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and making false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm, according to a 23-page plea agreement made public Tuesday.

Described by friends as a shy cycling enthusiast who once dreamed of joining the military, Marquez, 25, emerged as a central figure in the sprawling investigation of the Dec. 2, 2015, attack at the Inland Regional Center. Marquez placed a 911 call hours after the shooting, admitting that Farook used a gun that he had purchased, and later checked himself into a hospital before repeatedly speaking to investigators.

The end of the criminal cases does little to resolve some of the insoluble questions that continue to frustrate investigators about whether Farook or his wife, Tashfeen Malik, received aid or conspired with foreign terror networks while plotting the shootings.

Despite the yearlong inquiry, which saw the government contract a third party to hack into Farook’s work-issued iPhone and dredge a lake in search of the couple’s personal hard drive, investigators were unable to recover the hard drive or account for an 18-minute gap in a timeline of Farook and Malik’s movements after the shootings. Some fear the couple could have contacted co-conspirators during that period.

Marquez was the only person formally charged in connection with the shootings. Farook and Malik died in a gun battle with police hours after the assault, which left 14 dead and 22 wounded. At the time, the death toll was the highest in a terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11, though the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., claimed 49 lives just seven months later. 

One of the survivors of the San Bernardino attack, Hal Houser, said Tuesday that he considered Marquez a side figure in the shootings, and still wonders “why us?” when thinking back on the hail of gunfire that left his friends and co-workers diving for cover that day.

“Marquez never engendered my deepest animus,” Houser said. “He is just the only face I can tack to the dartboard.”

Marquez was not accused of taking part in the shootings and told federal investigators he did not have any prior knowledge of the attacks, according to the plea agreement. 

In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors will request that the judge grant Marquez some leniency when deciding his punishment. The combined maximum sentence allowed for the two charges is 25 years in prison. The government will also dismiss two fraud charges against Marquez that stemmed from his bogus marriage to a Russian woman, whose sister is married to Syed Raheel Farook, the shooter’s older brother.

Marquez met Syed Rizwan Farook in 2005 after moving next door to him in Riverside. The pair became friends, but their relationship took a dark turn in 2010, prosecutors said. Even as Marquez told friends he hoped to enlist in the U.S. Navy, prosecutors said, he and Farook had begun attending a mosque together and were secretly amassing weapons, discussing radical Islam and plotting attacks.

According to court records, Marquez and Farook had planned to launch an assault on the 91 Freeway in Corona and at Riverside City College in 2011 and 2012, but both plots were aborted, according to the plea agreement. The charges in the agreement accuse Marquez of conspiring to take part in those aborted attacks, not the shootings at the Inland Regional Center.

According to court records, Marquez and Farook decided to target the college first because both had been enrolled there as students and were familiar with the campus, the agreement said. They drew up plans to hurl pipe bombs onto a cafeteria from the floor above and identified the escape route they would use to carry out more attacks elsewhere on the school grounds, Marquez admitted in the plea agreement.

After attacking the school, the agreement said, Marquez and Farook planned to lay siege to a stretch of the 91 Freeway, which has no exits from which motorists could escape. Marquez acknowledged the plan called for him to hike up into the hills overlooking the freeway and fire on people as Farook threw pipe bombs from the side of the road and then shot people at close range.

Marquez also agreed that he lied when he bought two rifles in late 2011 and early 2012 and claimed in required federal paperwork that the weapons were for himself. In reality, the rifles were for Farook, who had given money to Marquez for the purchases, the plea agreement said.

The men believed Marquez could buy the rifles “more easily than Rizwan and would receive less scrutiny than Rizwan,” prosecutors wrote in the plea deal.

The agreement also detailed discussions the men had about making improvised explosive devices for their planned attacks. Marquez acknowledged consulting Inspire, an online English-language magazine published by Al Qaeda, for guidance on how to build the bombs. He and Farook spoke about using radio- and remote-controlled devices to detonate the bombs, and Marquez purchased Christmas tree lights that could be used to ignite explosives.

Not long after the shootings sparked a desperate hunt for the shooters, Marquez posted a cryptic apology on his personal Facebook page before going to an emergency room and then being sent to a mental health institution.

“I’m. Very sorry sguys (sic),” Marquez’s post read. “It was a pleasure.”

He was approached by the FBI a short time later. Marquez waived his right to an attorney and voluntarily spoke with federal agents in the weeks after the shootings. 

Those who knew Marquez said he had a guarded personality, rarely speaking of friends or his marriage, but he could become goofy and affable at times.

“He has a really nice smile. He’s really welcoming,” said Viviana Ramirez, Marquez’s friend who spoke to The Times in 2015. “He’ll play around if he feels very welcome with you.”

But he was also saddened by the state of his marriage to Mariya Chernykh, which was later revealed during the terror investigation to be a sham. Chernykh, her sister and Farook’s older brother all pleaded guilty to marriage fraud charges this year.

Marquez’s court-appointed attorneys did not return calls for comment.

U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker said that although Marquez had only been charged in the aborted 2011 and 2012 plots, his actions helped set in motion the bloodshed that came to San Bernardino years later.

“This defendant collaborated with and purchased weapons for a man who carried out the devastating Dec. 2, 2015, terrorist attack that took the lives of 14 innocent people, wounded nearly two dozen, and impacted our entire nation,” she said in a statement.

Houser said he hoped Marquez’s plea deal would allow those who lost loved ones in the attacks some respite from the constant coverage of the shootings. 

“My friends who were trapped in the room as the shooting took place faced ungodly terror,” he said. “To have to relive that every time this story breaks? Unimaginable.”

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Twitter: @palomaesquivel

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @joelrubin

james.queally@latimes.com

Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

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UPDATES:

8:15 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background about the case and some rewriting.

4:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information from the plea agreement and quotes from a survivor.

3:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background about Marquez and the 2015 attacks.

This article was originally published at 2:50 p.m.

San Bernardino terror plea: An article about a plea deal for Enrique Marquez Jr. in the Feb. 15 A-Section incorrectly said federal prosecutors would seek some leniency for Marquez. The agreement would not change the amount of time he serves in prison. The article also said the Orlando nightclub shooting occurred seven months after the San Bernardino attack; it was six months later.
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