Victoria Man Gets Significant Sentence for Hate Crime in Burning of Local Mosque
HOUSTON - The 26-year-old man convicted of burning the Victoria Islamic Center in January 2017 has been ordered to federal prison for more than 24 years.
U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick for the Southern District of Texas, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner of the FBI made the announcement.
A federal jury in Victoria returned guilty verdicts July 16, 2018, on all counts as charged against Marq Vincent Perez. They found him responsible for a hate crime in the burning of the Jan. 28, 2017, and for use of a fire to commit a felony. In addition, they found he possessed an unregistered destructive device for an incident that occurred on Jan. 15, 2017.
Today, Senior U.S. District Judge John Rainey noted the seriousness of the offense before imposing a 294-month-term of imprisonment. In handing down the sentence, the court noted that the most important factor in determining punishment was adequate deterrence, stating that “this conduct would not be tolerated in our society.”
Judge Rainey also commented on hate crimes and how they are “a cancer to our society” and that “this must stop.” The Judge also noted that Perez wanted to send a message to the Muslim community, but the court was also sending a message to Perez and others like him.
At the hearing, three members of the mosque also provided testimony detailing the impact the crime has had on them, their families and the community. They noted that people are still frightened to this day, noting that some of the female members do not even wear the traditional head coverings in public. Some members cannot even bring themselves to return because of their fears.
“The Attorney General has said that the Freedom of religion is indeed our ‘first freedom’—being the first listed right of our First Amendment,” said Patrick. “The Department of Justice prosecutes violent and dangerous crime, but also, and particularly when that crime interferes with someone’s ability to practice their religious faith. Not only was this a dangerous and potentially deadly act, but also one spurred from hate. I am glad justice was served in this case.”
“Everyone in this country has the right to worship freely without fear of violence,” said Gore. “This defendant terrorized the Muslim community in Victoria, and the Department partnered with federal, state and local agencies to ensure that the person responsible for this heinous hate crime would be found and prosecuted.”
“ATF is the primary federal law enforcement agency tasked with investigating House of Worship Fires and views an arson against a house of worship as not just an attack on a building, but as an attack against an entire community,” said Milanowski. “ATF is pleased the defendant has been held accountable for this crime and will continue to respond to these violent crimes using all available resources.”
“Mr. Perez sought to provoke terror within the tranquil space of the Victoria Islamic Center," said FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Edward Michel. "By deliberately burning down this mosque, Mr. Perez attacked a specific religious congregation in the hope of spreading fear, conflict and depriving Victoria’s Islamic community of their peaceful and safe place to worship. Today's sentencing illustrates that hate crimes will not be tolerated. No one in this country should feel afraid to openly practice their religion or express their beliefs. The FBI will continue to aggressively investigate civil rights violations wherever and whenever they occur."
At the time of the trial, the jury heard that the case was “a simple, straightforward case of hate.”
Testimony at trial detailed how Perez conducted what he described as “recon” by breaking into the mosque a week before he set it on fire. Evidence presented at trial showed Perez communicated with someone through Facebook about breaking into the mosque a second time, the same night of the fire. A witness who was with Perez on the night of the fire described how Perez used a lighter to set papers on fire inside the mosque and how excited Perez was upon seeing the mosque in flames just minutes later.
The witness testified that Perez said that he burned down the mosque, because he wanted to “send a message.”
During the execution of a search warrant, federal agents recovered stolen property taken from the mosque the night of the fire in Perez’s home. Several witnesses at trial also testified about Perez’s animus towards Muslims and that he often used anti-Muslim slurs.
Members of the mosque testified at the trial that they watched from afar as federal, state and local law enforcement officers tried to extinguish the fire, but observed that the fire could not be put out until it had engulfed the entire mosque. Those witnesses also testified that, after the destruction of the mosque, the Victoria Islamic Center raised money online from over 20,000 individuals from all over the United States and more than 90 countries to rebuild the mosque.
When Perez learned that the Victoria Muslim community had raised money to rebuild the mosque, he told a witness that he would burn the mosque down again if it was rebuilt.
ATF and FBI conducted the investigation along with the City of Victoria Fire Marshal’s Office, Victoria Fire Department, Victoria Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety - Criminal Investigations Division and Texas Rangers with assistance of Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office and Sheriff’s Offices in Victoria and Nueces Counties and the Victoria County District Attorney’s Office.
The City of Victoria has also acknowledged the efforts in this case, noting “The Victoria Fire Department and the City of Victoria would like to extend our gratitude and appreciation to all of our local state and federal partners. We also want to thank all of the local businesses and organizations that have supported the investigation team. This has been a long process, 21 months. We want to thank the community for their patience and support.”
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sharad S. Khandelwal and Kate Suh prosecuted the case along with Trial Attorney Saeed Mody of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division