Mail bomb suspect Sayoc makes first federal court appearance in Miami

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Caser Sayoc

By Jay Weaver, Miami Herald

Cesar Sayoc, a strident supporter of President Donald Trump charged with directing a mail-bomb campaign in South Florida against prominent Democrats, will be locked up in federal custody in Miami for at least a few more days.

The 56-year-old Aventura man, arrested Friday on charges of sending more than a dozen pipe bombs in manilla envelopes to political targets across the country, made his first federal court appearance on Monday before an expected move to New York, where his case will be formally prosecuted.

Cesar Sayoc, who made his first federal court appearance on Monday in Miami to face charges of directing a mail-bomb campaign against critics of President Donald Trump, had been arrested several times over the years, generating a gallery of mugshots in the process.

But Sayoc’s defense attorneys were granted more time to prepare their request for a bond, and Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres agreed to set a detention hearing for Friday. New York federal prosecutor Jane Kim said the government would oppose any bond for Sayoc, calling him a danger to the community and a flight risk.

The defendant, wearing a khaki prison jump suit, shackled and surrounded by U.S. marshals, said nothing about his case during the brief hearing but seemed to be fighting back tears. Wearing short-cropped hair with a pony tail, he did identify himself to the judge as Cesar Sayoc.

Outside the courthouse, Sayoc’s defense attorneys, Daniel Aaronson and Jamie Benjamin, downplayed the strength of the U.S. government’s criminal complaint against their client after his first court appearance — one that drew dozens of reporters and photographers because of the national notoriety of the case.

Benjamin said the complaint revealed little to link the defendant to the crime, calling the evidence “flimsy stuff.” The defense attorney raised questions about the FBI’s evidence of one “latent fingerprint” on a manilla envelope that matches Sayoc’s and a “possible DNA association” between two mail bombs and Sayoc’s genetic sample from a prior criminal case.

“There is no indication that there are bombs out there that have anything to do with Mr. Sayoc,” Benjamin said outside the courthouse.

The FBI criminal complaint, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, charges Sayoc with interstate transportation of an explosive, illegal mailing of explosives, threats against former presidents and certain other persons, threatening interstate communications, and assaulting federal officers.

So far, a total of 15 similar manilla packages containing crudely made explosives have been linked to Sayoc’s alleged mail-bomb campaign, including one recovered Monday at an Atlanta sorting facility that was addressed to CNN’s headquarters in the city, according to the FBI.

According to sources familiar with the probe, Sayoc told FBI agents and other authorities during a brief interview Friday at the bureau’s South Florida field office in Miramar that he never meant to hurt any of the intended targets — though the FBI’s director later said the pipe bombs were not “hoax devices.” Sayoc eventually clammed up, invoking his Miranda rights and asking to speak with a lawyer. None of the devices exploded.

The targets listed in the complaint are former President Barack Obama, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and, by reference, her husband, former President Bill Clinton), former Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan and former director of National Intelligence James Clapper, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, billionaire philanthropist and donor George Soros, and actor and director Robert De Niro.

Packages for Soros, De Niro, Clinton, Brennan and Clapper were mailed to the New York area, including those to Brennan and Clapper addressed to the Manhattan offices of CNN.

Sayoc, a former male stripper who had been living out of a van festooned with pro-Trump stickers and artwork depicting Obama and Hillary Clinton in crosshairs, is being held at the Miami Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami.

Federal agents are still searching for other possible suspects in South Florida who may have helped Sayoc, who was arrested at an auto parts store in Plantation.

FBI Director Christopher Wray would not say if there might be other potential suspects associated with the bomb-filled packages, citing the ongoing investigation. But the FBI director warned there could still be other suspicious envelopes en route to political targets.

“Today’s arrest does not mean we’re out of the woods,” he said during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday. “There may be other packages in transit now — other packages on the way.”

Friday night, FBI agents questioned a person at a Broward County residence with a potential connection to Sayoc, but nothing came of the interview, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.

Investigators are also analyzing Sayoc’s impounded van in which he lived and allegedly built the pipe bombs because it contains a trove of valuable evidence, from explosive-device materials to credit-card receipts. They say the vehicle directly links him to the crime of mailing the devices from South Florida to the Democratic targets. They were so crudely made that none detonated.

Agents also scrutinized Sayoc’s voluminous social media posts, his cellphone records and his movements throughout South Florida to link him to the threats against the Democratic targets. Sources told the Miami Herald that those database searches did not reveal evidence that Sayoc was influenced by any terrorist organizations, including ISIS. The notorious Middle Eastern terrorist group’s propaganda has been posted on social media of several convicted felons who attempted to carry out past bombings in South Florida.

Wray credited the “phenomenal work” of federal agents and FBI lab experts along with state and local police in New York, the Washington, D.C., area, Delaware, Florida and California, where authorities say the bomb-filled manilla envelopes were sent by Sayoc since mid-October. All of the packages, which had the return address of the congressional office of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were routed through a U.S. Postal Service mail sorting facility in Opa-locka.

A trail of telltale clues helped investigators quickly focus the nationwide manhunt on Sayoc. Among the connections: a latent fingerprint on an envelope sent to California Rep. Maxine Waters along with DNA residue on two devices sent to Waters and former President Obama. They matched with DNA records kept by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that were collected from Sayoc in previous state criminal cases.

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