Cesar Sayoc: Pipe bomb suspect targeting Trump critics pleads guilty

by Kim Boateng Posted on March 22nd, 2019

New York City: Pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc tearfully apologized as he pleaded guilty Thursday for the domestic terrorism attacks in which he mailed 16 crude explosive devices to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump in late 2018.

The 57-year-old Florida resident sobbed as he entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan federal court. He faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and possibly as much as life behind bars at his scheduled September 12 sentencing.

“I know that these actions were wrong and I am extremely sorry,” the sobbing defendant told the judge in a voice that was little more than a raspy whisper before pleading guilty to 65 criminal counts that included using weapons of mass destruction and illegal mailing of explosives with intent to kill or injure.

Responding to questioning by Rakoff, Sayoc said he had not intended for the devices to explode and hurt anyone, but instead “to threaten and intimidate people.”

However, he acknowledged knowing that his creations — “designed to look like pipe bombs,” packed with fireworks powder, fertilizer and glass fragments, and with a digital alarm clock and wires attached — could have detonated and caused death, serious injuries, and property damage.

“I was aware of the risk they could explode,” he said.

Left unanswered during the hearing was whether forensic evidence showed the likelihood that the devices, as designed, actually would have detonated.

The plea covered the criminal elements of the charges against Sayoc, covering all of the explosive devices he mailed in October from southern Florida to New York, California, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in a spree that sparked fear and jangled nerves nationwide.

The allegations superseded the 30-count criminal indictment handed up against Sayoc in November when he initially entered a not-guilty plea.

Appearing in court in a dark-colored jail smock and pants, Sayoc admitted he mailed the bomb packages to former president Barack Obama, former vice president Joe Biden, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, actor-director Robert De Niro, cable network CNN and prominent Trump critics.

Federal investigators located and disabled the devices, and no one was injured.

Guilty pleas or convictions on some of the counts in the original indictment could have subjected Sayoc to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. The superseding allegations eliminated the possibility of a mandatory life term, giving Rakoff discretion in deciding the ultimate sentence.

Sayoc still faces a potential maximum punishment of life imprisonment on 16 of the charges. One charge, carrying explosives while committing a felony, carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence to be served on top of any other punishment Rakoff imposes.

Federal prosecutors and a team of federal defenders representing Sayoc agreed to the plea terms in a negotiated agreement that does not bind the judge.

“I may agree with that. I may not agree with that,” Rakoff said of the plea agreement.

Amy Gallicchio, one of Sayoc’s lawyers, said the defense team would argue for leniency.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, took a harder stance in a statement that said Sayoc “will soon be sentenced to significant time in prison.”

“For five days in October 2018, Cesar Sayoc rained terror across the country,” said Berman. “Thankfully no one was hurt by these dangerous devices, but his actions left an air of fear and divisiveness in their wake.”

The spree erupted in October when suspicious packages were found in U.S. Postal Service facilities and at the offices or homes of Sayoc’s targets.

Authorities captured Sayoc in Plantation, Florida, on Oct. 26, 2018. They tracked him down through evidence from FBI laboratory tests that allegedly linked him to 11 of the 16 packages.

Sayoc’s personal history – pieced together from interviews with relatives, friends and associates, along with public records – sketches a portrait of a troubled man who at times seemed estranged from reality.

The details: New Yorker by birth. High school and college soccer player. Male stripper and dancer. Arrested for steroid possession, and other crimes. And the founder of multiple failed businesses.

Sayoc broke off contact with his mother, Madeline, and other relatives more than three years ago, said Ronald Lowy, a Miami lawyer who represented Sayoc in four court cases. In their last conversation before his most recent arrest, he told his mother he hated her, Lowy said.

A letter Sayoc’s mother sent to ABC News after his arrest hinted at mental health issues as one possible reason for the inter-family animosity, as well as for Sayoc’s alleged crimes.

“My son has been ill for a long time and my family and I have tried, over and over again, without success to urge him to get the help he needs,” Madeline Sayoc wrote.

Lowy said the relatives’ fears were based on a series of incidents, including Sayoc’s arrest in 2002 for threatening to blow up a Florida Public & Light building if the utility shut off his electricity. The threatened blast would be “worse than 9/11,” prosecutors alleged he warned.

“He was clearly mentally ill,” Lowy said. “Because you would have to be mentally ill to do something that dumb a year after 9/11 and not think that there would be consequences.”

Despite his other arrests, Sayoc is no master criminal, said Daniel Lurvey, an Aventura, Florida, attorney who represented him in court.

“I would never think he would do violence to another person,” Lurvey said.

During the months before the pipe bomb mailings, Sayoc lived in his van, a white vehicle festooned with images and words that praised Trump and blasted his critics, investigators discovered. Sayoc attended political rallies held in 2016 to boost Trump’s White House campaign.

The turn toward conservative Republican booster clashed with his family’s historical preference for Democratic candidates, Lowy said.

Sayoc’s alleged pivot toward violence puzzled Joseph Nunn, an entertainment booking agent based in Las Vegas. Nunn said he and Sayoc were roommates in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, years ago when the two performed as male strippers and dancers.

The arrest and charges against his old friend “blew my mind, literally,” Nunn said.

“He was a dear friend,” Nunn said. “Evidently, he went off the deep end.”

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