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Riverside City College students stunned that their school was a potential target

The entrance to the cafeteria at Riverside City College allegedly targeted by Syed Farook and Enrique Marquez.

The entrance to the cafeteria at Riverside City College allegedly targeted by Syed Farook and Enrique Marquez.

(Richard Winton / Los Angeles Times)

Years before Syed Rizwan Farook stormed the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino and opened fire, he and a longtime friend, Enrique Marquez Jr., hatched plans for other attacks across the Inland Empire, authorities said.

Near the top of their target list, according to court papers, was the sprawling campus of Riverside City College, a site Marquez and Farook knew well.

Both men had attended the college, and aside from its familiarity, the 22,000-student campus offered a more lethal benefit: maximum casualties.

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During a series of interviews with federal investigators since the Dec. 2 rampage, Marquez admitted that in 2011, he and Farook planned to lob pipe bombs into the first-floor cafeteria from the second floor, near the college’s student center, according to court papers.

From that spot, Marquez and Farook — childhood friends and longtime neighbors — could escape without detection and carry out another attack, possibly at the library, according to court papers.

These were among the chilling details released in court documents after Marquez, a 24-year-old Riverside resident, was charged Thursday with conspiring with Farook in 2011 and 2012 to commit terrorist attacks.

In preparation for the earlier plots, Marquez had bought semiautomatic rifles and other weapons. Those firearms were used in the San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead.

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Students at the college were shaken to find out that their campus had been listed as a potential target.

“It is kind of shocking to think we are sitting here right now and they planned to do something so horrific here,” said student Victor Garcia, 24. “That is crazy, but it is a reality nowadays. What makes a person think like that?”

Another student, Ashley Vicente, 18, said the target of the abandoned plot was where she had studied for final exams.

“I was there today. I sat in that cafeteria area,” she said. “It’s often crowded. If it happened today, I don’t know what I would do.”

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As police officers patrolled the grounds, TV news trucks and photographers descended on the campus. The college, approaching its 100-year anniversary, was otherwise quiet late Thursday afternoon as the semester neared its end and winter break loomed.

“We eat down in that cafeteria every day.... Who would have ever thought they would target Riverside?” said student Andres Raymundo, 19. The suspects obviously knew the campus well and where people often gather, he said. “It’s a terrible thing to even think about.”

As the reality of the alleged plot set in, Matt Estrada, 18, saw his sense of security ebbing: “Are we safe anywhere?”

The chancellor of the Riverside Community College District, Michael L. Burke, said in a statement that college administrators were not informed of the plot allegedly hatched by Marquez and Farook until Thursday afternoon.

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“The FBI, through an extensive investigation, has confirmed that no credible threat exists to any college or educational center” in the community college district, Burke said in the statement.

In recent years, the college has taken steps to increase its security and preparedness for possible attacks and natural disasters, said Nathan Miller, an elected trustee of the district.

“We’re as ahead of the curve as we could possibly be,” Miller said in an interview. But the San Bernardino attack, in which the wife of a Riverside City College police officer was among those slain, underscored the limits of preparation, he said.

“Anywhere, any time, one bad apple can spoil the bunch,” Miller said. “It doesn’t mean we live in fear, but these things can happen.”

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The charges against Marquez do not allege that he had advance knowledge of the San Bernardino attack. The day after the attack, Dec. 3, he posted a cryptic Facebook message stating “I’m. Very sorry sguys. It was a pleasure.”

He went to an emergency room and was later admitted to a psychiatric ward. He then agreed to questioning by federal investigators.

As Marquez appeared Thursday afternoon before a federal judge in Riverside, student Marisa Munoz, 19, stood about a mile away at the college campus, near the area overlooking the cafeteria.

“Oh my gosh, that is insane,” she said of Marquez’s and Farook’s alleged plot. “I cannot go anywhere. Everyone is nervous after San Bernardino.… We are all a little on edge.”

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Most disturbing for her was that Marquez had waited about four years before informing authorities of the abandoned plot.

“That is a long time,” she said. “What happened in that time period?”

Twitter: @lacrimes, @teresawatanabe and @MattHjourno.

Times staff writer Richard Winton reported from Riverside; Teresa Watanabe and Matt Hamilton reported from Los Angeles.

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