MIAMI (REUTERS) - A man suspected of sending at least 14 mail bombs to prominent critics of US President Donald Trump in the run-up to next month’s national elections was arrested on Friday (Oct 26) in Florida and charged with five federal felonies.
Cesar Sayoc, 56, was taken into custody outside an auto parts store in Plantation, Florida, near Miami. The authorities seized a white van belonging to him, the windows of which were plastered with pro-Trump stickers, the slogan “CNN SUCKS” and images of Democratic politicians with red cross-hairs over their faces.
Fingerprint and DNA evidence was used to identify Sayoc, but Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray cautioned that his arrest did not necessarily end the threat.
“There may be other packages in transit now and other packages on the way,” Wray said.
One federal law enforcement source told Reuters that the authorities were still investigating whether other individuals were involved and did not rule out the possibility of more arrests.
Sayoc’s arrest followed an intense four-day-old manhunt for whoever was responsible for at least 14 pipe bombs mailed to high-profile Democrats and others known as outspoken critics of Trump, including former US president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who Trump defeated in the 2016 presidential race.
The first of the bombs surfaced on Monday at the Westchester County, New York, home of billionaire Democratic donor George Soros. Four packages turned up on Friday, the 14th being addressed to a major contributor to the Democratic Party, Tom Steyer, in San Francisco.
Each consisted of explosive material packed in a plastic pipe and wired to a small clock and a battery, Wray said.
All the bombs were intercepted before reaching their intended targets and without exploding, and no one has been hurt.
The bombs have heightened tensions during what was already a highly contentious campaign season ahead of the Nov 6 elections in which Democrats are battling to seize control of Congress now held by Trump’s Republican Party.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan charged Sayoc with five felony counts, including interstate transportation and illegal mailing of explosives, threatening a former president, making threatening interstate communications and assaulting federal officers.
If convicted on all charges, Sayoc would face up to 48 years in prison, officials said.
“We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially political violence,” Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said at a press conference announcing the charges.
Wray told the news conference that fingerprints on one of two packages sent to US Representative Maxine Waters, a Los Angeles Democrat, belonged to Sayoc.
Announcing the arrest to a cheering audience at the White House, Trump said such “terrorising acts” were despicable and had no place in the United States.
“We must never allow political violence to take root in America – cannot let it happen,” Trump said.
“And I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and to stop it now.”
Sayoc’s home address was listed in public records as an upscale gated apartment complex in the seaside town of Aventura, Florida.
According to the records, he is a registered Republican with a lengthy criminal past, including once making a bomb threat, and a history of posting inflammatory broadsides on social media against Trump’s political foes.
Sayoc was initially held at an FBI processing centre in Miramar, Florida. He was expected to be taken to the Federal Detention Centre in downtown Miami and will likely make his first appearance before a judge on Monday, according to former assistant US attorney David Weinstein.
In addition to Steyer, the intended recipients of packages discovered on Friday included Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California.
‘STOP THE RANCOUR’
Hours after a federal law enforcement official said the investigation’s focus on Florida had intensified, police closed roads around the carpark of an AutoZone store in Plantation where Sayoc was arrested and helicopters flew overhead.
Investigators covered Sayoc’s van with a blue tarp before removing it on a truck.
All the people targeted by the suspicious packages have been maligned by right-wing critics. In addition to Obama, Clinton, Soros and Waters, packages that surfaced earlier in the week were addressed to former vice-president Joe Biden, former attorney-general Eric Holder, actor Robert De Niro and former CIA director John Brennan. His package was delivered to the Manhattan bureau of CNN, where he had served as an on-air analyst.
The episode has sparked an outcry from Trump’s critics charging that his frequent and casual use of inflammatory rhetoric against perceived enemies among Democrats and the press has stoked a climate ripe for politically motivated violence.
Trump’s supporters have accused Democrats in turn of unfairly suggesting that the President was to blame for the bomb scares.
“If we don’t stop this political mania, this fervour, rancour, hatred, you’ll see this again and again and again,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told MSNBC.
“We have to get to the genesis, and the genesis is an overheated, vitriolic political division in this country and it starts with the leaders, and it starts with the President.”
After first calling for unity at the White House event, Trump lamented partisan attacks against him and again pointed at the media.
“I get attacked all the time... I can do the greatest thing for our country, and on the networks and on different things it will show bad,” he told the crowd, acknowledging an attendee who shouted “fake news”.