A lone fingerprint and a set of misspellings helped point FBI agents to a Florida man with a long criminal record now charged with mailing homemade bombs to prominent critics of President Trump — a politically charged case that has roiled the run-up to next month’s congressional elections.
He was formally charged with sending 13 such devices, and a law enforcement official said he is likely to be charged with sending a 14th device to Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor. That package was intercepted in California, officials said.
The manhunt began Monday afternoon, when a pipe bomb was found inside a package delivered to billionaire activist George Soros, and ended less than 96 hours later with Sayoc’s arrest outside an auto supply store in Plantation, Fla. Sayoc, who lives in nearby Aventura, was arrested near his vehicle: a white van festooned with political declarations echoing Trump rhetoric.
Agents tried to question him immediately, according to one law enforcement official, under what’s called the “public safety exception,” which says police can interview a subject without first reading them their rights if authorities are seeking information about ongoing security threats. Sayoc did not want to talk and quickly demanded a lawyer, the official said.
Trump told reporters later that he did not think he bears blame for the alleged crimes.
“No, not at all,” Trump said as he left the White House for a political rally in North Carolina. “There’s no blame, there’s no anything,” Trump said, adding that the gunman who shot and badly wounded Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) last year “was a supporter of a different party.” That attack occurred in Alexandria, Va., as Republican lawmakers practiced for an annual Congressional Baseball Game.
The nation’s top law enforcement officials gathered at Justice Department headquarters in Washington on Friday afternoon to announce that the case that had put government officials and their agencies on high alert was solved.
“We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially not political violence,’’ Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “Let this be a lesson to anyone, regardless of their political beliefs, that we will bring the full force of law against anyone who attempts to use threats, intimidation and outright violence to further an agenda.”
Even as Sayoc was taken into custody, investigators across the country continued to chase potential bombs. Three such devices were discovered Friday — in Florida, New York and California — and officials warned there may be other, undiscovered packages in the mail system or a mailbox somewhere in the United States.
“We need all hands on deck, we need to stay vigilant,” said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. He characterized the 13 explosive devices recovered so far as “IEDs,” an abbreviation for improvised explosive devices.
Wray said that investigators were able to pinpoint Sayoc after finding a fingerprint on an envelope containing a bomb sent to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and that DNA found on two of the devices was a possible match to a sample previously taken from Sayoc during an earlier arrest in Florida.
One law enforcement official said the fingerprint discovery was a major breakthrough. With that, authorities began zeroing in on Sayoc on Thursday, gathering cellphone records to track his past movements and conducting real-time surveillance of his location and activities, the official said.
Wray declined to say whether the pipe-bomb devices could have detonated, noting that investigators are “still trying to determine whether or not they were functional.” But he said they did contain potentially explosive material, adding: “These are not hoax devices.”
Sayoc, whose long criminal history includes a past arrest for making a bomb threat, was charged with five crimes that could send him to prison for decades: transporting explosives across state lines, illegally mailing explosives, threatening former presidents and others, threatening interstate communications and assaulting federal officials.
Sayoc’s lawyer Sarah Jane Baumgartel declined to comment on the case.
Inside each of the packages sent to four of the targets — Obama, former CIA director John Brennan, Soros and Waters — was a picture of the individual with a red “X” mark, according to the 11-page complaint signed by FBI Special Agent David Brown.
The complaint also included details suggesting Sayoc’s antipathy toward the people and organizations targeted, including the news network CNN, where two of the packages were addressed.
“The windows of Sayoc’s van were covered with images including images critical of CNN,” the complaint said. The complaint also identifies a Twitter account that law enforcement officials believe Sayoc used.
Some of those postings included the same misspellings contained on some of the addresses on the pipe-bomb packages, including the last name of one of the recipients, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a prominent Florida Democrat and former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. On both the packages and the social media posts, her name was spelled “Shultz,” according to the complaint.
The complaint also said one Twitter post made Wednesday criticized Soros, who has contributed to liberal causes and two days earlier had received an explosive device.
Wray declined to say whether Sayoc is cooperating with investigators. When asked why Sayoc allegedly targeted Democrats, Sessions said he “appears to be a partisan, but that would be determined by the facts as the case goes forward.”
Sayoc’s previous run-ins with law enforcement date back at least to an arrest for larceny when Sayoc was 29 years old, according to state records. Other charges of larceny, grand theft and fraud followed across the southern part of the state. In 2002, he was arrested for a bomb threat called in to Florida Power & Light, a power company. Sayoc pleaded guilty without trial and was sentenced to probation, the records show.
Speaking Friday at the White House, Trump praised law enforcement’s quick work and pledged to prosecute the individual “to the fullest extent of the law.”
Asked about pro-Trump stickers or signs on the van allegedly driven by the suspect, Trump said, “I did not see my face on the van. I don’t know, I heard he was a person who preferred me over others.”
Photos of the van published Friday by The Washington Post and other news outlets show multiple images of Trump on the vehicle.
Trump also said that coverage of the mail bombs had interfered with Republican “momentum” ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
One of the bomber’s potential targets, Wasserman Schultz, said the case had been “gut-wrenching” for her, and served as a warning to the entire nation against the kind of heated rhetoric used by the president.
“We’re all responsible for making sure that we act and speak civilly,” she said. “When you raise the temperature, when you whip people into a frenzy, when you carelessly do not think about the impact of your words — particularly at the highest level of office in the country — then you are acting grossly irresponsible, and each of us has to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable.”
News of the arrest came as investigators continued to respond Friday to discoveries of explosive devices sent to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Booker and Harris are potential 2020 presidential candidates.
The FBI said a package, “similar in appearance to the others” found this week, was addressed to Booker and located in Florida. A spokesman for Booker declined to comment and referred questions to law enforcement.
A package recovered Friday at a Manhattan postal facility was addressed to Clapper, a CNN contributor. Just two days earlier, CNN’s offices in New York were evacuated when the package for Brennan, addressed to him at the network, was found in the mailroom.
Clapper appeared on CNN shortly after news broke a package was addressed to him, saying he felt relief no one was harmed by that device.
“This is definitely domestic terrorism, no doubt about it in my mind,” Clapper said on CNN, adding: “This is not going to silence the administration’s critics.”
A package addressed to Harris found Friday at a Sacramento mail facility was the 13th such device officials said they had linked to Sayoc.
Separately on Friday, Steyer, an outspoken Trump critic, said that a suspicious package mailed to him was intercepted in California, but this was not among the 13 listed in the federal complaint. Law enforcement officials, however, said they believed it was sent by Sayoc and it would likely be added to the charges against him.
The only common thread between the people who were sent devices is that they are prominent figures — many current or former Democratic elected officials — who have publicly clashed with Trump.
The list of possible targets began with Soros, then grew to include Obama, Clinton and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. Then came the packages sent to Brennan and CNN, Waters, former vice president Joe Biden and actor Robert De Niro.
According to the complaint, one of the Biden packages was addressed to an assisted-living facility, for reasons that were not immediately clear.
The package addressed to Holder was recovered at a South Florida office of Wasserman Schultz because her name was listed as the return address on all of them.
Julie Tate, Alice Crites, John Wagner, Seung Min Kim and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report, which has been updated.
Opinion: President Trump, ever the victim