How mail bomber sus­pect got caught

DNA, a fin­ger­print and phone track­ing helped FBI find Ce­sar Sayoc

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Paula McMa­hon Sun Sentinel

Short of turn­ing him­self in, sus­pected mail bomber Ce­sar Altieri Sayoc Jr. could not have done more to get caught.

The clues that in­ves­ti­ga­tors fol­lowed to his gaudy white van in Plan­ta­tion re­veal that he ei­ther ig­nored or failed to con­sider all of the ways he was lay­ing a trail for them.

He left a fin­ger­print on one of the pack­ages he is ac­cused of send­ing. His DNA was found on two of the bombs. By it­self, that was enough to put feds on his trail, and ev­ery­thing else fell to­gether quickly from there.

Here’s how in­ves­ti­ga­tors were able to find their man — one per­son in a pop­u­la­tion of 327 mil­lion — in a scant five days af­ter the pipe bombs be­gan show­ing up.

The pack­ages

The first sus­pected pack­age turned up Mon­day, ad­dressed to Ge­orge Soros, a bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist who has sup­ported Democrats. It was in­ter­cepted, but the num­ber of pack­ages grew on Tues­day. One to Barack Obama. One to Hil­lary Clin­ton. An­other to for­mer CIA Di­rec­tor John Bren­nan.

All tar­geted prom­i­nent Democrats, and all bore a re­turn ad­dress to South Florida con­gress­woman Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz, for­mer head of the Demo­cratic Na-

tional Com­mit­tee and a fre­quent tar­get of con­ser­va­tives.

Im­me­di­ately South Florida was at the cen­ter of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

An­other pack­age in­tended for for­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder was mis­ad­dressed and was shipped to Wasser­man Schultz’s of­fice as the re­turn ad­dress. By the end of the day Wednes­day, the num­ber of pipe bombs came to five, and the num­ber ul­ti­mately climbed to at least 14.

All of the bombs were nearly iden­ti­cal. Each “con­sisted of ap­prox­i­mately six inches of PVC pipe, a small clock, a bat­tery, wiring, and en­er­getic ma­te­rial,” FBI Agent David Brown wrote in court records.

Some of the mail­ings “in­cluded pho­tographs of the tar­get-re­cip­i­ents marked with a red ‘X,’” the agent wrote – the same way some were de­picted on Sayoc’s van.

Each of the de­vices was pack­aged in a tan-col­ored manila en­ve­lope lined with bub­ble wrap, with ap­prox­i­mately six self-ad­he­sive Amer­i­can flag postage stamps.

The pack­ages were taken to the FBI’s crime lab in Quan­tico, Va., for anal­y­sis.

FBI anal­y­sis

“The foren­sics are go­ing to lead you to the per­pe­tra­tor,” said John Osa, a re­tired FBI agent who worked ex­ten­sively on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Ok­la­homa City bomb­ing in 1995.

“You’ve got let­ters, you’ve got bombs, there’s go­ing to be some­thing the lab can do to nar­row it down and lead you to a sus­pect,” Osa said.

Lab ex­perts found a la­tent fin­ger­print on one of the en­velopes. Two DNA sam­ples were taken from com­po­nents of two of the pipe bombs.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors eas­ily linked that ev­i­dence to Sayoc, whose fin­ger­prints were in­cluded in a na­tional database be­cause of prior ar­rests for rel­a­tively mi­nor crimes in Florida. His DNA had been up­loaded to a Florida Depart­ment of Law En­force­ment database.

“This was ob­vi­ously a high-pri­or­ity case, and that’s an amaz­ing foren­sic ma­chine that they have in Quan­tico,” said Jeff Slo­man, a crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney who pre­vi­ously served as the U.S. At­tor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of Florida. “This guy was in the sys­tem, so they had his DNA and his fin­ger­prints.”

A big break

With a prime sus­pect in their sights, agents also ex­am­ined Sayoc’s pub­lic post­ings on Twit­ter for other clues.

They no­ticed sim­i­lar­i­ties that bol­stered their case: Sayoc’s so­cial me­dia posts mis­spelled words that also were in­cor­rect on the pack­age la­bels. Hil­lary Clin­ton was spelled “Hi­lary.” Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz was printed on re­turn la­bels as “Shultz.”

Once in­ves­ti­ga­tors have “a shred of prob­a­ble cause” they can seek war­rants from a judge to track a cell­phone, search and track

mail and con­duct wire­taps, if needed, said Osa, who now works in South Florida for The Freeh Group, a pri­vate risk man­age­ment and se­cu­rity firm headed by for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Louis Freeh.

Hun­dreds of agents from all of the FBI’s 56 field of­fices were avail­able to track down clues.

“When some­thing of this mag­ni­tude is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it’s all hands on deck. Ev­ery­one stops what they’re do­ing – in every FBI field of­fice – and it’s pri­or­ity num­ber one un­til they solve the case,” he said.

The big break came Thurs­day.

Ac­cord­ing to court records, that’s when in­ves­ti­ga­tors traced five of the pack­ages to the Postal Ser­vice’s mail dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter in Opa-locka, which han­dles thou­sands of pack­age mailed to and from South Florida.

Postal of­fi­cials won’t talk about how they screen or track pack­ages, but a rel­a­tively new pro­gram that pho­tographs mail could have played a part.

Asked about screen­ing, An­drea Avery, a postal in­spec­tor and spokes­woman for the U.S. Postal In­spec­tion Ser­vice, emailed a de­scrip­tion of a pro­gram called In­formed De­liv­ery that can send peo­ple pic­tures of mail headed their way in com­ing days.

Law en­force­ment sources also told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that they used cell­phone “ping­ing” tech­nol­ogy to track Sayoc’s where­abouts and tie him to lo­ca­tions where the pack­ages had been mailed.

The ar­rest

Although Sayoc had been liv­ing in his van, plas­tered with Trump stick­ers and anti-Demo­crat barbs, agents even­tu­ally vis­ited his mother’s home in Aven­tura be­fore dis­cov­er­ing that the two had been es­tranged for years.

In­stead, they fol­lowed Sayoc’s cell­phone to the park­ing lot of an Au­toZone store in Plan­ta­tion, where they put him un­der surveil­lance Fri­day morn­ing.

Af­ter what wit­nesses de­scribed as an ex­plo­sion – pos­si­bly a flash bomb det­o­nated by the FBI -- he was ar­rested just af­ter 10:30 a.m. as he ap­proached his van.

Tak­ing the sus­pected bomber into cus­tody there as­sured he would not a pose a dan­ger to the pub­lic or fed­eral agents if he re­sisted, au­thor­i­ties said.

“We were con­cerned there was a chance that he might have ex­plo­sives or that he could have rigged the van so we took mea­sures to en­sure that the ar­rest went down in as con­trolled a man­ner as pos­si­ble,” said one source with knowl­edge of the op­er­a­tion.

The van

Po­lice par­tially covered Sayoc’s van with a blue tar­pau­lin and loaded it onto a truck so it could be moved and thor­oughly searched. Osa and other law en­force­ment sources said the tarp was used to pre­serve ev­i­dence and limit peo­ple’s abil­ity to pho­to­graph the in­side of the van.

“They don’t want any­one to pho­to­graph the con­tents of the van, es­pe­cially with the way peo­ple can

Pho­to­shop things in to­day’s dig­i­tal age and make it look like stuff was there or not there, if they could have put it in a semi trac­tor-trailer to move it, they’d have done it,” Osa said.

Sayoc is locked up in the Fed­eral De­ten­tion Cen­ter in down­town Mi­ami. He is due in court Mon­day for an ini­tial hear­ing and likely pro­ceed­ings to move him to New York, where he will be prose­cuted.

He is be­ing rep­re­sented by As­sis­tant Fed­eral Pub­lic De­fender Sarah Baum­gar­tel in the South­ern Dis­trict of New York. Baum­gar­tel did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. South Florida’s fed­eral pub­lic de­fender, Michael Caruso, de­clined to com­ment


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