Cesar Sayoc lived on the crummy strip-mall fringes of South Florida, sleeping in a van that stank of sweaty gym clothes, delivering pizzas on the graveyard shift and working as floorman inside a smoky, dingy gentlemen’s club where naked dancers gyrated mechanically for dollar tips from boozy customers.
Sayoc was always several rungs lower on the ladder than he aspired to be and exaggerated the caliber of roles he chose for himself. He said he was a Chippendales dancer, a champion bodybuilder, a professional wrestler, a popular DJ, a dry-cleaning business whiz and a veterinary medicine student who once played soccer for AC Milan in the Italian league.
Sayoc, who sometimes used the misspelled handle Julus Cesar, liked to brag about owning a strip club, the Cesar’s Palace Royale. It existed only in his mind.
In South Florida, where the sun shines year round, dreams and schemes grow like hothouse flowers. It was here that a homeless ex-male stripper and Donald Trump fanatic concocted a mass mailing of pipe bombs that thrust an angry nation on edge into panic.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
It was here that Sayoc finally found his true calling. His life changed two years ago at a Trump rally in West Palm Beach. He bought a red Make America Great Again cap, carried a poster mocking Trump critics and joined the boisterous throng in belligerent chants of “Lock her up!”
He plastered his van with stickers glorifying Trump and superimposing rifle-scope crosshairs on the faces of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He began berating his lesbian boss at the pizza parlor, telling her she would burn in hell with the blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and gays who were ruining America.
At some point, authorities say, he began plotting a venture that would at last make up for the failures on his resume. Sayoc allegedly worked on it into the wee hours inside his aging white van — dubbed the MAGAmobile by people who saw it around town — which he often parked by a Hollywood funeral home.
This past Friday, two years after Trump defeated Clinton for president and less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Sayoc was arrested at a Plantation AutoZone store and charged with mailing pipe bombs to a dozen prominent Democratic leaders and activists around the country, including former President Obama. The manila envelopes, replete with misspelled names and packed with crude explosive materials, passed through the Opa-locka postal facility just miles from where Sayoc, 56, grew up in Aventura and graduated from North Miami Beach High School.
Sayoc, described as a “nobody,” a “weirdo” and an “outcast” by those who encountered him on social media or in person, triggered a furious FBI manhunt when the packages began turning up unexploded and stoked fears of a domestic terrorism attack.
When the FBI used a fingerprint clumsily left on an envelope to track him down, Sayoc — bankrupt, foreclosed upon, estranged from his family — was suddenly something else: famous. He was the MAGAbomber, the mystery mastermind who found himself at center stage of the global discourse on the nasty partisan politics ripping the United States into blue and red shards.
In fact, Sayoc’s capture intensified the divisive, pre-election rhetoric, with some Republican hard-liners claiming that the mail bombing campaign was “fake news,” a “false flag,” or that Sayoc was a pawn in a conspiracy cooked up by the Democratic Party.
Sayoc told FBI agents Friday he didn’t mean to harm anybody, but investigators said the bombs were not “hoax devices.” His suspected bomb-mailing spree was soon eclipsed by a heinous hate crime in Pittsburgh. As Sayoc waited in a prison cell Saturday for his first appearance in federal court on Monday, a 46-year-old man yelling “All Jews must die!” shot and killed 11 people and wounded six others who were attending a synagogue service.
“It’s a terrible thing what’s going on with hate in this country,” the president said of the shooting, before traveling to a rally in southern Illinois.
By some accounts, Sayoc’s behavior became more hostile after he announced his support for candidate Trump in 2015. His social media posts, previously apolitical and focused on motorcycles, cars, Miami sports teams, youth league soccer, weightlifting and Native American culture, turned dark and conspiratorial, with pictures of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow and references to Benghazi, email servers, media collusion and CNN arrayed below the words “Swamp to be drained!”
Sayoc attended a Trump rally on Oct. 13, 2016, in West Palm Beach and another three months later in Orlando. Trump’s rally script includes insults of his Democratic opponents, warnings that the media is “the enemy of the people” and promises to restore American superiority that tap into the frustrations, foment the anger and energize the loyalty of his supporters, who are whipped into a lather by Trump’s speeches.
Sayoc, wearing the Trump uniform (he once reported to police that someone stole $7,000 worth of Trump-branded business suits from his van), felt like he was part of a powerful winning team and posted selfies and videos in his red cap. His posts became more voluminous and incoherent He posted a video titled “Satan Sent Obama to Destroy America” and wished for all liberals to depart the United States via the Mexican border. He made references to China, Iran and ISIS and complained that Clinton and Obama were soft on terrorism.
“When he found out I was a lesbian, he told me I should burn in hell and I was a deformity, that God made a mistake with me and I should go on an island with Hillary Clinton and Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres and President Barack Obama and all the misfits of the world,” said Debra Gureghian, general manager at New River Pizza & Fresh Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale, where Sayoc worked from January 2017 to January 2018.
She said Sayoc proclaimed his adoration of Adolf Hitler and ethnic cleansing.
But Gureghian said Sayoc was a neatly dressed, cologne-wearing, reliable employee and she did not feel threatened by him, despite the hunting knife he carried. One rainy night when he gave her a ride home, she saw the interior of the van. It was filled with dirty laundry, crumpled fast-food bags, beer and vodka bottles, headless Barbie dolls and bottles of vitamins.
“I can’t believe he could pull this off,” Gureghian said of the accusations against Sayoc.
Sayoc, who often parked his van by a kosher market at the Waterways Shoppes in Aventura, began getting into arguments in parking lots and at stoplights with people who complained that his right-wing extremist stickers sowed hate.
Ron Lowy, a Miami lawyer who represented Sayoc on previous charges of shoplifting, steroid possession and threatening to blow up Florida Power & Light “worse than 9/11” because his electricity was shut off after he failed to pay a bill, said Sayoc had been living in a fantasy world for a long time.
Sayoc’s milieu since 1982 was the perpetual night and pseudo-glam of the strip club, where he was surrounded by women and the women were always “girls” and the girls were always nude.
“When he first came to my office in 2001 he showed me a scrapbook with photos of himself as a naked exotic stripper, a bodybuilder, a wrestler, a DJ, whatever nonsense and not what I wanted to see,” Lowy said. “He wanted to prove he’s important. He has friends. He wanted something to be proud of.”
Sayoc was living at the time in a different van that was plastered with Native American and Seminole Tribe stickers. Sayoc insisted he was a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, although the tribe denies he had any affiliation.
Sayoc was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was Filipino and his mother, Madeline Giardiello, is of Italian descent. Lowy, who is a family friend, said Sayoc’s problems began when his father left the family and returned to the Philippines.
“It’s natural that Cesar has abandonment issues, issues of self-worth, neglect. Am I a mistake, am I hated?” said Lowy, who concluded that the “confused, immature and inarticulate” Sayoc was mentally ill.
“He’s 14 years old living in an adult body,” Lowy said. “We got him probation because we did not have a mental health court in Dade County at that time. There were not enough signs then that he’d become a bomber, but he needed treatment. In all these incidents the outsiders like Nikolas Cruz and Cesar Sayoc have one thing in common — they have no one who they connect with. They feel they are outcasts.”
Sayoc was ripe for conversion to a political cause because of the constant dead-ends in his search for identity, Lowy said.
“For the first time Cesar heard someone he could follow, someone who put the blame on others and declared war against the Democrats, the media, the immigrants,” Lowy said. “It was like a non-religious jihad, and although Trump didn’t intend for violence to occur, there are sick people who will act on his words.”
Sayoc found a tribe to join and a mission to pursue. Trump was like a surrogate father, Lowy added.
“He wanted to please his adopted father by performing this work on his behalf,” Lowy said. He does not believe Sayoc was intelligent enough to plan and execute the mail bombing idea and suspects he was encouraged or assisted by someone else.
Sayoc’s spiral began much earlier, according to his cousin, Lenny Altieri. It was in 2004, when Sayoc was driving to Harley Race’s professional wrestling school in Indiana. He got busted with a trunk full of steroids.
“That ended the dream,” Altieri said. Sayoc never made it to the school. “He couldn’t dance anymore because he was too old. And he lost his dry-cleaning business.”
Sayoc was in his 40s and his career as a male stripper was over. He was relegated to working the door and monitoring champagne rooms at Tootsie’s and Pure Platinum, Altieri said.
Sayoc’s grandparents in Hollywood took him in for a few years before he ended up on the street, showering and brushing his teeth at the Hollywood beach public restrooms and living in his van, which would later double as his bomb-making lab, authorities said.
“His life was full of disappointments,” Altieri said. “He kept having obstacles in his way. He moved from family member to family member. I feel bad for this kid. I really do.”
Sayoc’s mother was in a hospital recovering from surgery Friday when she saw coverage of Sayoc’s arrest on television. She has not seen or spoken to him in years, said Enid Weisman, mayor of Aventura and a friend of Giardiello, an ardent Democrat who has campaigned for local candidates. Giardiello is a retired beauty salon owner whose husband served prison time on mob-connected RICO charges.
“This is devastating for her,” Weisman said. “This is a good family that cares about the community. She is warm, friendly, impeccably groomed and lovely, the first person to offer help to anybody.”
Sayoc listed his mother’s Aventura condo as his home address. She, his sisters and his stepfather pleaded with him for years to get mental health treatment, but he indignantly refused and stopped communicating with them.
Madeline Giardiello would hardly recognize her son today, with his beefy build, bulging biceps and thinning hair slicked back into a noodle-like ponytail.
In high school, soccer was his passion. He played as a walk-on in 1983 at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he was known for huffing and puffing so loudly when he ran that the coach yelled at him, “Sayoc, derail that train!” former UNC-C sports information director Mark Colone told the Charlotte Observer. Colone also recalled an awkward moment when a referee told Sayoc to take off his heavy gold chain, and Sayoc slammed it on the scorer’s table, caught it on the air horn and set off a loud honk.
Sayoc became a gym fiend and wanted a career as a pro wrestler or Mixed Martial Arts fighter. He posted photos of himself in bodybuilding poses, skin oiled to a fine sheen. Local gym owners and trainers say Sayoc was no more than a wannabe.
Sayoc claimed in rambling, contradictory answers to a lawyer’s questions about his background during a 2014 deposition that his athletic talents took him to AC Milan for part of a season and to the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League, where he played middle linebacker in 1988.
Sayoc, who also claimed his grandfather Balthazar overthrew the Communist Party in the Philippines before becoming a plastic surgeon in New York, said he returned to college at High Point (N.C.) University to finish his business, finance and biology degrees and become a “horse doctor,” but the school has no record of his attendance.
Sayoc had multiple run-ins with the law starting in 1992, mostly non-violent theft charges.
He’s held a variety of jobs — casino security guard, grocery store manager, truck driver — and owner of One Price Dry Cleaning in Hallandale, although on closer questioning by the lawyer, Sayoc said, “I was the sub-area of the president of the corporation.”
“You were the what?” the lawyer responded. Sayoc said he did that for about a year before he went to Eddie Sharkey’s wrestling camp in Minnesota. But that didn’t work out either.
“I really don’t, you know, socialize with too many other people,” Sayoc said of his personal life.
At the time of his arrest Sayoc was employed at a Papa John’s pizza shop situated next to a jewelry store and bakery in a nondescript Hollywood strip mall. Two homeless men who hang out at the 7-Eleven parking lot there said Sayoc would give them change late at night before parking his van around the corner.
“We’d see him on the side streets with his lights lit up inside,” Jim Pinder said. “We never knew what he did. It was strange.”
By his early 20s Sayoc was performing around the country and at local establishments as a muscular male stripper, partial to tight white outfits, long black ringlets of hair and spray tans. He remained in the business as a choreographer, promoter, booking agent, manager, DJ and bouncer.
He toured with the Chippendales and Chippendolls, “the No. 1 name in entertainment,” according to Sayoc. He also ran his own show, called All-American Male. He worked different jobs at local spots such as Solid Gold, Thee Doll House, Stir Crazy and Porky’s (which was “not my cup of tea — it’s a low-end club,” he said). He claimed he helped Tootsie’s make $13 million by increasing the house take on lap dances.
Cheetah, in Hallandale Beach, declined to hire him because he struck the owner as “weird.”
“We had a bad experience with him at Pure Platinum,” said Joe Rodriguez, Cheetah’s owner. “We got a bad feeling about him. Thank God we didn’t hire him.”
At the Ultra Gentlemen’s Club in West Palm Beach, where Sayoc worked a Thursday shift hours before his arrest, it was business as usual Friday night, with “full-nude” women sliding up and down poles to the beat from the muddy sound system and getting groped by customers at the dimly lit bar. Sayoc was remembered as a dependable, diplomatic floorman — a roaming bouncer. He was a mediocre DJ and “just one of the guys,” said a dancer, who talked with her co-workers about Sayoc as they refreshed their makeup in the bathroom. He was “not creepy” or violent, she said.
Another stripper recalled how kind and courteous Sayoc was. He’d walk her to her car in the pre-dawn hours to make sure she was safe.
Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris, Charles Rabin, Carol Marbin Miller, Daniel Chang, Colleen Wright and Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.