A Florida man whose white van was festooned with angry slogans and images directed at the political left was arrested Friday in connection with the spate of suspicious, potentially explosive devices sent in recent days to prominent critics of President Trump.
The mailings, more than a dozen sprinkled throughout the week and throughout the country, spread waves of fear among politicians, media figures and thousands of postal workers tasked with scouring the country’s mail in search of devices that authorities say may still not be fully accounted for.
“These are not hoax devices,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said, adding that more of the packages may still be in the mail.
The suspect, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., 56, was taken into custody by an FBI SWAT team near State Road 7 in Plantation, Fla., about 30 miles north of Miami. His van, covered with slogans and a picture of Trump that were partially concealed by a blue tarp, was followed live by TV helicopters in a moment befitting the confluence of media, politics and anger at the center of American culture.
Sayoc has been charged with five federal crimes, including interstate transportation of an explosive and threatening a former president. He could face a sentence of up to 58 years in prison, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in announcing the charges at a news conference.
“This is a law-and-order administration. We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially not political violence,” Sessions said.
The string of suspicious packages renewed concerns that the political culture had become too toxic.
“He appears to be a partisan, but that will be determined by the facts as the case goes forward,” Sessions said of the suspect, declining to ascribe a specific motive.
Sayoc’s van was “covered with images,” including some critical of CNN, according to the federal criminal complaint filed against him. Widely circulated photographs of what appeared to be the same van showed several images of Trump, and one of Hillary Clinton targeted in crosshairs.
Trump, however, continued to cast himself as a victim in the situation, saying he was being unfairly treated by the media and Democrats.
“I did not see my face on the van,” he said at the White House when a reporter asked about the suspect. “I heard he was a person that preferred me over others, but I did not see that.”
Trump added that “there’s no blame, there’s no anything” on his own part, while noting that a person with left-wing views had shot several people at a congressional baseball practice last year, injuring a Republican member of Congress.
Trump was briefed on Sayoc’s arrest by the FBI and Justice Department, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley. White House officials would not say whether Trump’s briefing came before or after the president fired off a tweet about the case that downplayed its seriousness and came close to endorsing conservative claims of a “false flag” operation.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” Trump tweeted. “Very unfortunate, what is going on.”
According to the criminal complaint, Sayoc posted statements on social media critical of President Obama and George Soros, the financier and supporter of liberal causes. Clinton, Obama and Soros were among those to whom Sayoc allegedly sent explosives.
Wray said it was “too early to be discussing motivation.”
Wray said Sayoc had been initially identified using a fingerprint that was discovered on one of the envelopes mailed to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Investigators then linked two DNA samples taken from explosive devices sent to Obama and Waters to a sample taken from Sayoc in connection with an earlier arrest in Florida, Wray said.
The devices have so far failed to detonate, leading some to believe they may not have been intended to inflict harm. Wray not only contradicted that theory, but implicitly pushed back against Trump’s downplaying of the threat in his tweet
Sayoc, who has a prior arrest for making a threat with an explosive, is not a Florida native but lives in Aventura in northern Miami-Dade County, according to the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Public records reveal an arrest record that includes 20 criminal charges, the latest related to a 2015 theft. He has also been charged with battery and possession and distribution of illegal drugs, and filed for personal bankruptcy in 2012, according to public records. He was arrested in 2002 for making a threat to discharge a destructive device.
Less than two hours after the arrest, Trump celebrated it at an event with young African American leaders at the White House.
“These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country,” he said, promising that the justice system would be tough on the perpetrator. “We will prosecute them — him, her, whoever it may be — to the fullest extent of the law.”
In his 2012 bankruptcy filing, Sayoc said he was unmarried, lived with his mother and owned no furniture; his vehicle was a 2001 Chevy Tahoe with 285,000 miles on it. He reported collecting unemployment support in 2009 and 2010. For at least a year, he said, he worked as a store manager earning $13,000 a year for Hassanco Investment Inc. in Hollywood, Fla.
The law office for the attorney who represented Sayoc in the bankruptcy case, Christian Olson, declined to comment.
In December 2013, Sayoc was charged with felony grand theft and battery over a Nov. 28, 2013, incident. He pleaded no contest in May 2014 and was placed on a year’s probation. He violated the terms of his probation in January 2015 and was rearrested, court records show. He pleaded no contest in 2015 to petty theft and was placed on another year of probation.
The FBI confirmed on social media that a package was sent to Booker, saying it was recovered at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Florida and was similar in appearance to others directed toward prominent figures, including Obama, Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Soros, actor Robert De Niro and Waters.
New York City police said the Clapper package — sent in care of CNN’s New York office, like a similar package directed toward former CIA Director John Brennan earlier in the week — was discovered at a mail facility in Manhattan, forcing the temporary evacuation of residents, a post office and a nearby educational facility. The link with the Harris package was confirmed in the criminal complaint released after Sayoc was charged.
The Steyer package was found in a post office sorting facility in Burlingame, Calif.
“This is definitely domestic terrorism. No question about it in my mind,” Clapper told CNN.
Clapper and Booker, like the other targets, have clashed publicly with Trump.
Trump previously called Clapper, who served in the Obama administration, the “world’s dumbest former intelligence head, who has the problem of lying a lot.” Trump has accused Clapper of lying to Congress.
Booker, a Democrat believed to have presidential ambitions, is a frequent target of Trump in his political rallies, as is Waters.
Trump briefly called for unity in the face of the attacks, but has since lashed out at his critics, saying that news organizations bearresponsibility for divisiveness.
Many Trump critics and others have blamed the president, at least in part, for coarsening American politics and creating an angrier climate. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, however, said on Twitter that the charge was unfair, also noting that the gunman who attacked a congressional baseball practice last year was a liberal supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I didn’t blame Bernie Sanders when a Bernie supporter shot Congressman Steve Scalise. And I’m not going to blame President @realDonaldTrump for this nut job,” Graham wrote.
Sanders, however, lacks both Trump’s platform and his propensity for referring to his political opponents as enemies.
Earlier in the week, law enforcement officials had said at least some of the packages were sent from southern Florida. They were marked with the returnaddress of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who has also led the Democratic National Committee.
Wasserman Schultz, speaking to reporters in southern Florida on Friday, called the perpetrator “sinister,” “evil” and “horrific.”
“I really don’t know,” she said, when asked why herreturn address was used. She said the moment pointed to the need for political comity.
“None of us should be treating our opponents like the enemy.”
Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire in Washington and Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.