Federal authorities have arrested a man they say is a suspect in the apparent hate-crime arson that caused $500,000 in damage and destroyed an Islamic Center in Victoria, Texas, in January.
Marq Vincent Perez, 25, currently is only charged with possession of a destructive, incendiary device stemming from a separate incident where he is accused of attempting to set a car on fire. The affidavit of probable cause, used to arrest Perez, is sealed from public inspection.
But at a detention hearing Thursday in Corpus Christi, Texas, a federal investigator told a judge that Perez is believed responsible for Jan. 28 fire at the Victoria Islamic Center, 125 miles southwest of Houston.
A confidential informant admitted burglarizing the mosque on Jan. 22 and again on Jan. 28 with Perez, and identified Perez as the arsonist, special agent Rick Miller of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified, the Victoria Advocate reported in today’s editions.
Items taken during those burglaries, along with firearms, explosive devices and a bullet-proof vest, were recovered when federal agents searched the suspect’s home earlier this month, the ATF agent testified.
U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Janice Ellington said evidence of his Perez’ suspected involvement in a “hate crime” led her to order the suspect held without bond as a danger to the community and flight risk.
“The evidence against the defendant is substantial, and the testimony of ATF Agent Miller was unrefuted [and] credible,” the federal judge said.
Defense attorney Mark Di Carlo, who represents Perez, told media outlets that his client is not charged with the mosque arson at this point, even though that allegation was raised in court. Perez currently is only charged federally with having “five large firecrackers that were taped together on to one fuse,” Di Carlo said.
As such investigations go forward, investigators take evidence and witnesses before a closed-door, secret federal grand jury panel where prosecutors outline alleged criminal activity and ask for charges in a federal indictment.
It took investigators almost two weeks before they declared the Victoria mosque fire an act of arson. The investigation is on-going.
Stephen Ruiz told the Victoria newspaper he has been a friend of the suspect since the two attended the city’s Memorial High School together. Ruiz “described Perez as a ‘right-wing extremist’ who made racist comments about the mosque close to the time of the fire,” the newspaper reported.
“He's never liked anyone foreign,” Ruiz said of his friend Perez.
Meanwhile, the Texas office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) today issued a statement saying it “welcomed an arrest of a man suspected of setting fire to the Islamic Center of Victoria.”
“We welcome this arrest and thank investigators for their swift and professional actions in apprehending the alleged arsonist,” said Mustafaa Carroll, the executive director of CAIR’s office in Houston.
“The actions of law enforcement authorities send a strong message of deterrence to others who may consider turning their bigoted views into violent actions,” Carroll said.
The CAIR statement said the arson suspect appears to be a “right-wing extremist” with “an apparent hatred of Muslims” who mistakenly believes they are terrorists. The suspect may have targeted multiple mosques based on his social media comments, the statement said.
CAIR also is monitoring the investigation of a fire that occurred at a mosque under construction in Travis County, Texas. Investigators, who haven’t ruled out arson, now say they may never know the exact source of that fire.