On 26 October 2018, a 56-year-old Florida resident named Cesar Sayoc was arrested on suspicion of having mailed a series of explosive devices to Democratic officials and other critics of President Trump over the previous several days.
A post-arrest look into Sayoc’s background quickly revealed that he appeared to be an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, having attended at least two Trump rallies in Florida and driving a van whose windows were festooned with pro-Trump stickers:
Even before Sayoc’s arrest, Trump supporters and assorted conspiracy buffs had already been pushing a theory that the mail bombs “were not actually part of a plot to harm Democrats, but were a ‘false flag’ operation concocted by leftists in order to paint conservatives as violent radicals ahead of the [midterm] elections”:
A range of high-profile conservatives have embraced a conspiracy theory that mail bombs sent to liberal public figures are a “false flag” attack by leftwingers. Many have also claimed that the attacks are intended to elicit sympathy for Democrats ahead of the looming midterm elections.
Authorities are yet to identify a suspect or motive in the bombings, which have seen 12 pipe bombs sent to a range of figures from former president Barack Obama to Bill and Hillary Clinton to financier George Soros and even to the out-spoken actor Robert De Niro. All the suspects have one thing in common: they have been targets of Donald Trump’s ire.
Nevertheless, without evidence, a number of ostensibly mainstream conservatives joined more overtly conspiracist outlets in either expressing skepticism that conservatives would damage their own cause, or making outright accusations that the left are orchestrating the bombing campaign in order to sabotage Republicans.
Not dissuaded by the evidence when a suspect was finally taken into custody, the conspiracy theorists quickly disclaimed evidence such as Sayoc’s van, maintaining that it was too obviously “staged”:
The “staged van” claim had a fatal flaw to it, though: south Florida residents had been spotting and photographing Sayoc’s unusual van with its collection of pro-Trump stickers for up to a year before his arrest.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, for example, reported on the many locals who had observed Sayoc and his prominent vehicle around town long before the wave of mail bombings and his subsequent arrest:
From Aventura to Hollywood to Davie and farther, people have gawked and photographed the oddball vehicle for some time.
“I saw this van dozens of times. It always struck me, always unsettled me. It appeared that somebody at times was in the van, though it was hard to tell because of the windows,” said David Cypkin, a documentary film producer who co-produced 2006’s “Cocaine Cowboys.”
“This is also Miami and you don’t know — this guy’s an enthusiastic Trump supporter, that’s one thing, but the number of stickers he had on his car combined with some of the more threatening stickers seemed to indicate this might be a person with a problem you don’t want to confront directly, especially in Miami, where you don’t know if anybody’s armed.”
Cypkin encountered the van regularly when he lived near the Shoppes at the Waterways in Aventura, where it was regularly parked. Cypkin believed someone could be living in the van, and finally, on the morning of New Year’s Eve 2017, he snapped a few quick pictures so he could get a better look at some of the stickers later.
“I had seen it there at least a year,” Cypkin said. “I did see someone standing at the back one time, with one of the back doors open. I didn’t make eye contact.”
In Davie, people frequently saw the van outside Whole Foods, and Geo Rodriguez, a former South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter, came across it in front of Papa John’s pizza in Hollywood.
On April 6, he stepped outside a 7-11 and saw the van, parked on the swale next to Hollywood Boulevard, in front of the Papa John’s. Several readers said they have seen the van delivering pizza.
I’ve seen him off and on. You can tell he’s from around here,” Rodriguez said. “I see him at the Publix here in Hollywood all the time. He’s kind of like a fixture.”
In fact, as exemplified by the following Vice article excerpt, some commenters began debating after Sayoc’s arrest whether his van shouldn’t have been called to the attention of law enforcement authorities well before he allegedly began sending explosive devices through the mail:
After media outlets broadcast images of Sayoc’s ride being impounded by FBI agents, Miami locals began posting photos of the van taken as far back as last winter …
But even as the inflammatory rhetoric on the windows of Sayoc’s van attracted the curiosity of nervous onlookers, conversations with federal law enforcement and free speech experts suggested the decals and the messaging alone likely did not represent actionable criminal conduct. In other words, despite hate crimes being on the rise and the majority of extremist violence being carried out by right-wing white supremacists, a violence-adorned MAGA van is almost certainly just that: a vehicle some Americans might find objectionable.
“You can’t do anything about the stickers and the decals,” Chris Quick, a former FBI joint terrorism task force agent, told me. “That is free speech. It doesn’t matter if it was one or 20 stickers.”
None of this is likely to dissuade the faithful, however, as conspiracy theorists tend to pick and choose their evidence while ignoring substantive proof that contradicts their claims. In this case, any conspiracy adherent would have to believe the far-fetched notion that Sayoc was engaged to attend Republican political rallies and drive (and possibly live in) in a van prominently marked with political stickers for a year or more in order to set up a “false flag” plot that wouldn’t play out until long afterwards.