A federal jury in southeast Texas found a man guilty of a hate crime after the burning of a mosque last year, the Justice Department announced Monday.
After about three hours of deliberation, a jury found 26-year-old Marq Vincent Perez guilty of all counts in the Jan. 28, 2017, blaze at an Islamic center in Victoria, Texas. Perez faces up to 20 years in federal prison for destroying a religious place of worship, a hate crime. He also faces a consecutive and mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years for use of fire to commit a felony, DOJ said.
“All people are entitled to live free from violence and fear, regardless of their religion or place of worship,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “Perez’s actions were criminal, unlawful, and dangerous. This Justice Department is committed to holding hate crimes perpetrators accountable under the law,” he added.
The mosque fire occurred hours after President Donald Trump’s travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries took place. A member of the mosque took photos of the blaze and posted them to the center’s official Facebook page, writing, “We will rebuild, with LOVE!”
The center was able to get more than $1 million in donations on a GoFundMe page for rebuilding the center, but Shahid Hashmi, one of the co-founders of the Islamic Center, told Buzzfeed News months later after the fire, “Having witnessed something like that, which we couldn’t even imagine? That it could happen right here? I think that sadness, that sorrow, will stay with us forever.”
After the verdict was handed down, Abe Ajrami, a board member for the mosque, told the Victoria Advocate about the long-lasting effect of the fire on the mosque community.
“You can’t get over these things,” he told the newspaper. “I can tell you that, on Fridays, especially when the kids are around, I personally pray with my ears open hoping not to hear the click of a weapon. I often listen to the ceremony with my back against the wall, watching the front door.”
He added: “Hopefully, we’ll manage. We’ll move on. We’ll finish building our mosque and we thank anybody for the support they’ve given us.”
DOJ also said Perez was also found guilty of possessing an unregistered destructive device for an incident — specified as an “attempted car bombing” — that occurred about two weeks before the fire. Perez faces up to 10 years for that count.
The agency said, taken together, all the guilty counts amount to 40 years in prison and a possible fine up to $250,000. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for October 2.
According to the DOJ, nine witnesses took the stand and revealed the following information to the jury from the investigation:
- One of the government’s witnesses described how Perez used a derogatory term to refer to Muslims.
- An FBI agent pointed to Perez’s own comments on his Facebook page, which were used by prosecutors to frame the defendant’s motivations.
- Court testimony showed that Perez had planned the fire by doing a “recon” of the mosque days before the incident.
- A witness, identified as a 17-year-old accomplice, said Perez was “jumping up and down like a little kid” as the sight of the mosque aflame.
- Investigators found items at Perez’s home that belonged to the mosque and an improvised bomb similar to the one used in an “attempted car-bombing” about two weeks before the fire.
In his closing argument, Perez’s attorney Mark Di Carlo said prosecutors put forward a “well-oiled, cherry-picked case,” the Advocate reported.
“Do not cover the truth with falsehood,” said defense attorney Mark Di Carlo to jurors, reading from the Quran.
— Jon Wilcox (@thrilcox) July 16, 2018
Authorities ruled the fire an act of arson more than a week after the fire happened.
During the five-day trial, prosecutors pointed to several of Perez’s online comments, obtained by a search warrant, including interactions with the Three Percenters, a right-wing militia group.
“If recon is run and weapons are found (at the Victoria Islamic Center) then it’s going to be bad. I have plans to be ready,” one private message read to a known Three Percenter member, the Advocate reported.
The mosque is expected to reopen in the coming weeks.