An ATF Special Agent testified at a hearing that Marq Perez had posted Facebook comments that could prove he targeted the mosque because he despises Muslims.
A federal grand jury charged a South Texas man with a hate crime Thursday for allegedly setting fire to a mosque in January, adding to charges tied to his reported attempt to blow up a car.
The grand jury indicted Marq Vincent Perez, 25, for a Jan. 28 burglary and arson at the Victoria Islamic Center, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
A federal grand jury charged Perez in March with possession of an unregistered destructive device and he was arrested for an unrelated incident in which he allegedly threw homemade fireworks at a parked car in Victoria on Jan. 15.
The superseding indictment handed down Thursday adds two counts for the mosque fire: damage to a religious property, a hate crime, and using a fire to commit a federal felony.
Perez faces up to 40 years in federal prison and $750,000 in fines if convicted of all the charges. He is being held in the DeWitt County Jail in Cuero, Texas.
Southern District of Texas Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez announced the charges Thursday at a news conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building in Victoria.
Martinez said at the news conference Perez was not charged with a hate crime in his first indictment in March because the only evidence connecting him to the arson was the testimony of a federal agent, the Victoria Advocate reported.
But Martinez said investigators are now confident Perez is the arsonist after spending months interviewing numerous sources and analyzing evidence.
Perez’s defense attorney Mark Di Carlo filed an objection to the press conference Thursday morning in which he stated he had only found out about it that morning from a reporter and that he had to hustle out of unrelated hearings in Corpus Christi to get to Victoria, 95 miles northeast, for the news conference.
According to the Advocate, Di Carlo called the presser “political” and questioned why Martinez opened it by stating, “We are a very diverse district, so much so that we have a very large [Muslim] population. In fact, the Houston metro area has the second-largest [Muslim] population in the country.”
Di Carlo told the Advocate, “Why would they open up a press conference … with diversity? What does that have to do with my client’s crime?”
Flanked by FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and local and state law enforcement, Martinez reportedly declined to say what evidence he had to show Perez allegedly set the fire out of hate for Muslims.
“By definition, burning a church because [of its] character and the people that worship there is what makes it a hate crime,” Martinez said.
ATF Special Agent Rick Miller testified at a March detention hearing that Perez had posted Facebook comments that could prove he targeted the mosque because he despises Muslims, the Advocate reported.
Di Carlo suggested that prosecutors only charged Perez with a hate crime because the arson target was a mosque.
“What if it had been a Baptist church? Would that make it a hate crime?” he told the Advocate.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the U.S., reported late last year that mosques across the United States were hit with a surge of hate mail and threatening phone calls after Donald Trump was elected president in November.