Federal authorities arrested a person on Friday in connection with at least a dozen parcel bombs sent this week to Democratic politicians and high-profile critics of US President Donald Trump, the US Justice Department said.
A van was taken away from the scene of the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, 56, in a Florida business car park. The van was covered in stickers and photos of Donald Trump, local media reported. Officers swiftly covered the van in a blue tarpaulin.
The Miami Herald said the suspect was being questioned by FBI agents with the joint terrorism task force since his arrest at about 10am local time.
Florida records show that Sayoc has a lengthy criminal record in the state, including a 2002 arrest for a bomb threat and others for larceny and fraud.
Trump called the suspected mail bombs “terrorising acts” and praised law enforcement officers for the arrest in Florida.
“We will prosecute them, him, her, whoever it may be, to the fullest extent of the law,” he said at a White House event. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America and I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and stop it now.”
A law enforcement source told the Miami Herald the arrest was made in the car park of an AutoZone car parts shop in Plantation, just west of Fort Lauderdale. Local television station CBS4 reported a “loud explosion” heard at the time of the arrest, possibly from an FBI flash-bang device.
Photographs circulating on social media showed what appeared to be the same van that was taken from the scene, identifiable by some of the same stickers.
The earlier photos of the van on the road in Florida showed stickers proclaiming “Native Americans for Trump”, “CNN sucks”, and a photo of Hillary Clinton with crosshairs over her face.
The man was picked up soon after a pair of apparent pipe bomb packages sent to Senator Cory Booker and ex-national intelligence director James Clapper were discovered, authorities said.
Authorities in Sacramento, California, were also investigating a suspicious package sent to US Senator Kamala Harris, another Democrat.
The package addressed to Clapper was sent to CNN, which now hires him as an analyst. . Speaking in an interview on the network, Clapper said it was “not a surprise” to be mailed a suspicious package and called it domestic terrorism.
Authorities acknowledged additional undelivered packages could still be in the mail.
Trump said on Friday that news coverage of the suspicious packages had slowed momentum for Republican candidates before the congressional elections.
Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this “Bomb” stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2018
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
At the same time, actor Robert De Niro, one of the intended targets, urged Americans on Friday to get out and vote.
“I thank God no one’s been hurt, and I thank the brave and resourceful security and law enforcement people for protecting us,” De Niro said in a statement.
“There’s something more powerful than bombs, and that’s your vote. People MUST vote.”
Bomb squad and canine units joined Federal Bureau of Investigation agents late on Thursday to examine a sprawling US mail distribution centre at Opa-Locka, northwest of Miami, Miami-Dade County police said.
“Some of the packages went through the mail. They originated, some of them, from Florida,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed during an interview on Fox News Channel. “I am confident that this person or people will be brought to justice.”
The targets were figures frequently maligned by right-wing critics. They included former president Barack Obama, ex-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan and California Representative Maxine Waters, who received two packages.
The FBI has said at least five of the packages had a return address for the Florida office of US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Holder’s package was diverted and delivered to Wasserman Schultz’s address. Brennan’s package was sent in care of the Manhattan bureau of CNN, where he has appeared as an on-air analyst.
On Thursday, the investigation widened with the discovery of three additional packages. Two were intended for former vice-president Joe Biden at his home state of Delaware and one for actor Robert De Niro in Manhattan.
Authorities believe the packages, which were intercepted before reaching their recipients, all went through the US Postal Service at some point, a source said. None detonated and no one has been hurt.
A federal law enforcement source said the devices were thought to have been fashioned from bomb-making designs widely available on the internet.
Investigators are nevertheless treating the devices as “live” explosives, not hoaxes, said James O’Neill, police commissioner of New York City where two of the parcels surfaced.
Investigators have declined to say whether the devices were built to be functional. Bomb experts and security analysts say based on their rudimentary construction it appeared they were probably designed to sow fear than kill.
The parcels consisted of a manila envelope with a bubble-wrap interior containing “potentially destructive devices”, the FBI said. Each had computer-printed address labels and six stamps, the agency said.
The episode sparked an outcry from Trump’s critics, who tried to pin the blame for the letter bombs on the president, claiming inflammatory rhetoric against Democrats and the press was creating a climate for politically motivated violence.
He and his supporters accused the Democrats of being unfair.