CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A man suspected of burning down a Texas mosque believed its worshippers were terrorists and may have been looking for other mosques to target, authorities alleged during a hearing pertaining to an unrelated case against the man.
Marq Vincent Perez, 25, hasn't been charged in the Jan. 28 fire that destroyed the Islamic center in his hometown of Victoria, a community about 125 miles southwest of Houston.
Perez was arrested last week on a charge alleging he tried to set fire to a former friend's car earlier in January, and during a hearing Thursday, prosecutors presented evidence that Perez was suspected in the fire and an earlier burglary of the mosque in arguing that he be denied bond.
Although prosecutors have repeatedly declined to describe the burning of the mosque as a hate crime, U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Janice Ellington cited testimony Thursday about Perez's "involvement in a hate crime presently being investigated" as a reason for denying him bond.
Perez's attorney, Mark Di Carlo, told The Associated Press on Friday that he felt he and Perez "were kind of ambushed" by the mosque fire allegations being raised at a detention hearing for an unrelated case.
"My client hasn't been charged with that crime," he said.
"At this point, we don't know of any strong evidence against him" in the mosque fire, Di Carlo said. He described the evidence that was presented as "hearsay and speculation," and pointed out that much of it came from two confidential informants who didn't appear at the hearing.
Rick Miller, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified during the hearing that one of the informants, a male juvenile, admitted to taking part with Perez in the Jan. 15 incident involving the car and the Jan. 22 and 28 burglaries of the mosque, implicating Perez as the one who set fire to it.
According to Miller, the informant said Perez stole the mosque's electrical meters and a laptop during each break-in, and the stolen laptops were found during a raid of Perez's home last week, the Victoria Advocate and Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported.
The informant said Perez "hated" Muslims and suspected that members of the mosque were involved in terrorist groups, Miller testified. The informant said Perez explained that they were breaking into the mosque to see if its members were hiding weapons there.
Angela Dodge, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Friday by email that no one has been charged in the mosque case and she declined to say when or if anyone would be charged.
The other informant said Perez told him "he'd done something in the mosque and soon everyone would know about it," Miller testified. The two discussed the mosque in Facebook messages, with Perez indicating that he was watching the mosque and noting how many people were guarding it, the agent said.
Miller said one of the informants said Perez believed Muslims were allowed to marry children. He also testified that Perez messaged a friend that the hardest part was "getting the town to believe the evidence" and that "only us soldiers, both retired and forgotten," are "armed and ready."
A prosecutor suggested Perez may have been looking to target other mosques, pointing to a comment he posted saying, "Can you pinpoint any mosques that a team can get clear to?"
Perez's father, Mario, testified that he never heard his son make statements about Muslims as they worked 50 to 60 hours a week as electricians.
Members of the mosque, meanwhile, have pointed to the huge effect the fire has had on their community. A mosque spokesman, Abe Ajrami, said that since the fire, many parents have stopped sending their kids to the mosque, which has had to hire armed security to protect the congration.
"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."