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A man suspected of burning the Victoria Islamic Center is a homegrown product with an apparent hatred of Muslims, according to testimony Thursday in federal court.
News of the arrest is allowing congregation members to start to shake off the fear that has pervaded their lives, mosque spokesman Abe Ajrami said.
"This incident really shook us to the core," Ajrami said at a news conference at the site of the burned mosque. "I hope people understand that this is not something we watched on TV or read in the newspaper. This is something we lived daily."
Prosecutors presented evidence Thursday alleging Victoria resident Marq Vincent Perez, 25, burglarized the mosque twice in January and set the building on fire the second time. A March 3 raid on Perez's North Jecker Street home recovered homemade explosive devices and electronics reported stolen from the mosque.
After the fire was ruled an arson in early February, investigators have searched for the person or people responsible. Before Perez's arrest, investigators have held back from describing the arson as a hate crime.
"If you ask our honest opinion, we were hoping that a miracle would happen and this would not be a hate crime," Ajrami said.
Despite Perez's lack of a criminal record, a federal judge ultimately found him to be a "serious danger" to the community and likely to flee if released, ordering him kept in U.S. Marshals' custody.
Perez is charged with the possession of a destructive, incendiary device. That sole charge stems from a Jan. 15 incident in which Perez is suspected of attempting to set a car on fire by igniting fireworks taped together. A confidential informant who admitted to burglarizing the mosque Jan. 22 and 28 with Perez also identified Perez as the arsonist, special agent Rick Miller of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified Thursday.
Defense attorney Mark Di Carlo, of Corpus Christi, emphasized Perez has not been charged in connection with the fire that destroyed the mosque.
"My client's charges are related to having five large firecrackers that were taped together on a fuse," Di Carlo said.
That charge is punishable with up to 10 years in federal prison.
Victoria father and husband Stephen Ruiz said he and his family were the targets of that device Jan. 15.
"This is my dad's car. He shot it with a shotgun (multiple) times and then threw the explosive at it," Ruiz said, pulling back a cover on a weathered gray sedan in his driveway.
Ruiz said Perez visited his suburban Victoria house to harass and terrorize his family. He said Perez, who was once his best friend of 10 years, began targeting his family after Ruiz's wife rebuffed Perez's romantic advances.
"For the past four months, he has been steadily vandalizing my house," Ruiz said.
Perez is in a romantic relationship and has two small children with Victoria resident Matilda Cano, 18, based on testimony in Thursday's detention hearing. Cano is Ruiz's sister-in-law.
When reached by telephone Thursday, Cano declined to comment.
Miller testified for almost two hours during Thursday's hearing.
Two incendiary devices, fireworks taped together, were recovered by the ATF from the Jan. 15 scene, and the family's outdoor surveillance cameras captured the attack, Ruiz said. That footage has been turned over to investigators, he said.
Ruiz said he has known Perez since they attended Memorial High School together.
He described Perez as a "right-wing extremist" who made racist comments about the mosque close to the time of the fire.
"He's never liked anyone foreign," Ruiz said.
Feb. 14, ATF agents spoke with a Victoria school resource officer who found a backpack belonging to an informant that contained an iPad mini, cellphones and fireworks matching those used during the Jan. 15 attack.
March 3, investigators executed search warrants at the homes of Perez and a confidential informant.
Belinda Escamilla, a Victoria resident who lives behind Perez's North Jecker Street home, said she was woken about 5 a.m. by the sounds of that warrant being served. She said she remembers agents battering the home's door and searching the property for hours.
She said she also remembers someone at the home shooting off "a whole bunch" of fireworks on New Year's Eve in 2016.
According to court documents, several firearms, a knife, a bulletproof vest and a destructive incendiary device were recovered from the home March 3. Investigators are testing the fireworks devices for fingerprints.
As prosecutors introduced numerous pieces of physical evidence during the hearing, they also pointed to Perez's own messages, social media posts and statements to demonstrate his motive.
Audio courtesy of the Corpus Christi Caller Times
Based on Facebook messages from Perez on Jan. 20, Miller testified the defendant was watching the mosque and observing its security measures before setting it on fire.
In that Facebook conversation, Perez writes that it's hard to know what Muslims will do "since Trump is claiming to send them all packing."
A prosecutor also argued Perez was possibly targeting multiple mosques based on his comment, "Can you pinpoint any mosques that a team can get clear to?"
According to an informant, Perez was upset by his perception that Muslims were allowed to marry children. He also said he believed members of the mosque were involved in ISIS and were terrorists.
Perez also was motivated by a desire to check the Victoria Islamic Center for weapon caches, prosecutors said.
According to testimony, an informant said Perez, an electrician, stole the mosque's electric meter in an effort to disable electronic security measures. After removing plywood over a rear door with tools, Perez entered the building Jan. 28 with a long lighter. He left with at least one laptop and the meter, the informant said.
Another message by Perez suggested he was motivated by a desire to protect his community from members of the mosque.
"The hardest is getting the town to believe evidence. Everyone lives in blessed ignorance that war never comes to us, that only us soldiers, both retired and forgotten, are the only ones armed and ready," Perez's message to a friend read.
Prosecutors said Perez was discharged from the Air Force after five weeks because he was having a hard time adjusting.
While Perez's father testified in court to his son's character as a hard worker and provider, mosque members have pointed to the immense damage the fire has done to their community. Perez's arrest, if he is found to be the arsonist of the mosque, comes as a relief, Ajrami said.
Since the fire, many families have stopped sending their children to the mosque.
Additionally, armed security has been hired to protect the congregation.
"This is about our physical safety," Ajrami said. "A guy who would walk in one day and break the doors and steal electronics and a few days later come back and light the whole building on fire obviously doesn't care. That was the scary part. What else is this person or persons capable of doing?"
Although members have vowed to rebuild the mosque and are currently discussing plans with architect Rawley McCoy, Perez had made a promise of his own, a prosecutor said in court.
"He said he would 'do it again if they rebuilt the mosque,'" the prosecutor said.
Perez's father, Mario, though, said he never heard his son make statements about Muslims as they worked together 50-60 hours a week as electricians. His son attended Christian schools until his final two years of high school, the elder Perez testified.
"We love him unconditionally," the father said.
Victoria Advocate reporter Karn Dhingra contributed to this story.
For previous coverage of mosque fire, please click here.