A month after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had come to what felt like an almost inevitable conclusion that the fire that destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center on January 28 was believed to be arson, a man currently in federal custody has been accused of starting the fire that gutted the Victoria mosque.
Authorities told a federal judge in Corpus Christi on Thursday they believe Victoria resident Marq Vincent Perez, 25, burgled the Victoria Islamic Center on January 22 and then again on January 28, when, they allege, he set fire to the building. A March 3 raid on Perez's Victoria home recovered homemade explosive devices and electronics reported stolen from the mosque, prosecutors told the court.
However, Perez was actually in court facing a charge of possession of a destructive incendiary device, based on a separate incident where he allegedly tried to set a car on fire on January 15 by lighting two bundles of fireworks that had been taped together. If convicted for this charge he faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
Perez is accused of trying to use the fireworks to set a car ablaze because of a personal grudge. Stephen Ruiz — a Victoria resident who told the Victoria Advocate he and Perez had once been best friends before Perez hit on Ruiz's wife — says on January 15 Perez showed up at Ruiz's home and shot at a car repeatedly with a shotgun before lobbing explosives at it. The attack was captured on the Ruiz family's surveillance cameras and investigators collected two of the explosive devices from the scene.
Ruiz says Perez has been vandalizing Ruiz's home for months. (Things get even more complicated, based on the testimony at Thursday's detention hearing, since it seems Perez is in a relationship with 18-year-old Matilda Cano, another Victoria resident. Cano, who has two young children with Perez, just happens to be Ruiz's sister-in-law.) Ruiz describes Perez as a "right-wing extremist" who has never liked "anyone foreign."
The fact that Perez is still a prime suspect in the Victoria Islamic Center fire and burglary seems to have played a large part in why he was not released on bail. During the hearing, ATF special agent Rick Millertestified that a confidential informant who has admitted to being with Perez during both of the burglaries at the Victoria Islamic Center has implicated Perez as the arsonist, according to the Advocate.
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The informant was also linked to the Ruiz incident when a Victoria school official found matches and fireworks matching those used at Ruiz's house on January 15. When officers served a search warrant at Perez's home on March 3 they also found guns, a bulletproof vest, a knife and a destructive incendiary device, along with electronics reported stolen from the mosque. The findings are being tested for fingerprints.
Even though Perez has no criminal history, U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Ellington denied his bail request, deeming him a flight risk because of "other offenses under investigation," according to court records.
Members of the mosque say they are relieved just to have some answers about who might have burned their house of worship. In the wake of the fire, Victoria residents and people from around the country donated more than $1 million to rebuild the Victoria Islamic Center, as we reported, but the burglary and fire still left the mosque's members unsettled.
"This incident really shook us to the core," mosque spokesman Abe Ajrami said at a news conference at the site of the burned mosque, according to the Advocate. "I hope people understand that this is not something we watched on TV or read in the newspaper. This is something we lived daily."