The so-called “MAGA bomber” was living in a cramped van in Florida in 2015, working in strip clubs and delivering pizzas, when he learned that his longtime idol, Donald Trump, was running for president.
Quickly swept up in MAGA fever, Cesar Sayoc began organizing his days around Fox News shows, and for the first time, he became a vocal political participant on social media, signing up to hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups, according to new court documents filed this week by his defense lawyers.
Trump’s candidacy seemed to give him a sense of purpose.
And three years after Trump rode down the golden escalator in Trump Tower, 57-year-old Sayoc waged a weeklong mailbombing campaign targeting the president’s biggest critics.
Nobody was hurt, but the mailbombs added to a toxic political climate and stoked nationwide fear of more MAGA-fueled violence. Recipients of Sayoc's bomb packages last October included liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros, former president Barack Obama, actor Robert DeNiro, and California congresswoman Maxine Waters, and the offices of CNN.
In the hours after SWAT teams closed in on Sayoc’s van — which was adorned with pro-Trump stickers — his numerous social media accounts were brought to light, and revealed a man consumed by right-wing conspiracies and paranoia.
Sayoc’s lawyers say that Trump’s candidacy had offered a glimmer of hope in a life otherwise shaped by abandonment, sexual assault, steroid abuse, mental illness, and poverty.
“When he was most down, Mr. Sayoc relied on self-help books on tape to keep going,” lawyers wrote in court documents filed this week. “Donald Trump’s books on success and business were his favorites.”
When Trump announced he was running for president, Sayoc enthusiastically threw his support behind him — and relied on Fox News to keep him informed about the campaign.
“He began watching Fox News religiously at the gym, planning his morning workout to coincide with ‘Fox and Friends’ and his evenings to dovetail with Hannity,” his lawyers wrote.
Sayoc quickly became consumed by the toxic political environment that the 2016 election had ushered in. “He believed outlandish reports in the news and on social media, which increasingly made him unhinged,” lawyers said. “He became obsessed with ‘attacks’ from those he perceived as Trump’s enemies.” It got worse. Lawyers said that his steroid consumption fueled obsessive, paranoid and angry thoughts. “He conflated his personal situation with the perceived struggled of Trump supporters across the country, and even the President himself,” lawyers wrote.
“He became obsessed with ‘attacks’ from those he perceived as Trump’s enemies.”
In March, Sayoc pleaded guilty to 65 felony counts, which include using weapons of mass destruction in an attempted domestic terrorist attack. Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence, because they say Sayoc has not exhibited remorse and continues to insist that the 16 devices he sent to Trump’s critics were “hoax” devices, despite evidence to the contrary.
But his defense team is requesting a sentence of no more than 121 months (about 10 years), pointing to Sayoc’s steady work history and troubled life. They describe how his father, an immigrant from the Philippines, abandoned Sayoc and his mother as a child. Sayoc was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Mississippi, where he says he was raped by the supervising priests. His mother took him out of boarding school, and sent him to a high school in Miami, but he struggled to keep up. His sister told the court that he had a low intelligence level, and that he was “a fantasy land talker.”
He’d had brushes with the law; in 2002, when he was running his own dry-cleaning business in Florida, he was arrested after he threatened to blow up his local electricity provider and sentenced to probation. The business closed, but by 2007 he’d gotten back on his feet, and saved up enough to buy his own home near Miami. That was the same year as the Great Recession. He was foreclosed on, and he lost everything. By 2012, he filed for bankruptcy, and ever since had lived in squalid conditions in his van, dubbed by the media as his MAGA-mobile.
“Mr. Sayoc viewed Donald Trump as everything he wanted to be: self-made, successful, and a “playboy’,” lawyers said. “He was a Donald Trump super-fan.”
Sayoc’s sentencing is scheduled for September.
Cover: In this undated photo released by the Broward County Sheriff's office, Cesar Sayoc is seen in a booking photo, in Miami. A police report says mail pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc was accused earlier in 2018, with throwing urine from his van at two women on a moped in Florida. (Broward County Sheriff's Office via AP)