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Cesar Sayoc gets 20 years for mailing explosive devices to Trump critics

The Brooklyn-born man mailed devices resembling pipe bombs to targets including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, CNN and George Soros.

Cesar Sayoc in a July 31, 2015, booking

Cesar Sayoc in a July 31, 2015, booking photo. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Broward County Sheriff's Office

Cesar Sayoc, the exotic dancer and drifter whose campaign last year to mail 16 bomb-like devices to prominent Democratic and liberal targets stoked fears that political tensions would turn violent, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Manhattan federal court on Monday.

The sentencing by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, against a backdrop of anti-immigrant violence in El Paso last weekend, followed Sayoc’s plea to 65 explosives-related counts in March, and the disclosure last month that although the devices looked like bombs none of them actually worked.

Rakoff dismissed defense claims that Sayoc’s actions were the fault of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a “sideshow,” but triggered tears of apparent relief from Sayoc by rejecting a life sentence, concluding the devices were designed to frighten but not kill Sayoc’s targets.

“He hated his victims, he wished them no good, but he was not so lost as to wish them dead, at least not by his own hand,” Rakoff said.

Brooklyn-born Sayoc, 57, most recently of Aventura, Fla., a vocal Trump supporter who plastered his van with right-leaning decals, last October mailed devices resembling pipe bombs to figures ranging from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden to George Soros and Robert deNiro..

Portrayed in court papers as a child victim of sex abuse with mental limitations who was unhinged by excessive steroid usage and became convinced in the superheated  political environment of 2018 that the left was out to get Trump supporters, Sayoc told Rakoff he was “very sorry.”   

“Now that I am sober, I know I was a very sick man” he said, nervously and deliberately reading from a short prepared statement as his mother and sister looked on from the gallery. “…I wish more than anything I could turn back the clock and undo what I did.”

Defense lawyers said Sayoc’s obsessive attraction to Trump began by reading his pre-presidential self-help books, and said studies correlating the president’s appearance at rallies to local increases in hate crimes documented the impact he had on impressionable backers like Sayoc.

“We believe the president’s rhetoric contributed to Mr. Sayoc’s actions,” defense lawyer Ian Marcus argued. “…At his rallies the president has encouraged or at least condone chants that encourage violence.”

But Rakoff shrugged off the studies and the argument. “Correlation and causation are two very different things,” he said.

Sayoc’s mailings last October went to 13 targets altogether, who also included CNN, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, former intelligence officials John Brennan and James Clapper, former Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, and wealthy activist Tom Steyer.

They had pictures of each victim with a red “X” or crosshairs, and contained PVC pipes with powder from fireworks and chlorine-based pool chemicals, as well as shrapnel and clock timers. But FBI and defense experts both said the timers weren’t set and wires weren’t connected to a detonator.

Sayoc, in a series of hand-scrawled letters to Rakoff from jail, said the devices were hoaxes, and Marcus pressed that argument in court, urging the judge to impose only the mandatory minimum of ten years in prison on his client.

“If you give him life, it doesn’t allow for greater punishment for far worse conduct,” he said. “Not a single person was injured here.”

But prosecutor Jean Kim said the devices could have exploded by accident, it wasn’t clear whether Sayoc intended them not to work or just was a bad bomb builder, and either way he hoped to use fear  to “deter and chill political activity” and wound traditions of peaceful debate.

Rakoff agreed that ten years wasn’t nearly enough. “Even though, thank God, no one was injured,” he said, “the crimes were far too horrible to warrant such a relatively lenient punishment.

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