VICTORIA, Texas – A 25-year-old man has been charged with a hate crime for setting fire to a Victoria mosque in January, according to federal officials.
"Think of your own house... your pictures... your memories. Everything-- gone," said Abe Ajrami, a board member of the Victoria Islamic Center.
A federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment against Marq Vincent Perez for allegedly burning the Victoria Islamic Center on Jan. 28. Perez faces a charge for a hate crime, "damage to a religious property as well as use of a fire to commit a federal felony in relation to the arson at the mosque," according to authorities.
The vision of blistering flames and debris are still very fresh for Ajrami, who said more than 170 Muslim members of the Victoria community have come to adore their sacred place of worship.
"People are still in shock," said Ajrami. "We sometimes look at pictures--memories we gathered there kids grew up there...went to school there."
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, Abe Martinez held a news conference Thursday at the federal courthouse in downtown Victoria. Martinez said it was a group effort that led to this indictment. He stood next to several federal, state and local agencies who all cited collaboration as the key factor in arresting Perez.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) led the investigation with the Victoria Police and Fire Departments, the city of Victoria's Fire Marshal's Office, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers, Victoria County Sheriff's Office and the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office.
"Intentionally defacing a religious house of worship here is a federal crime. A crime that is intolerable in a free and open society," said Martinez.
Perez was initially arrested and charged on March 3 in connection with an attempt to blow up a car with a destructive device, according to investigators. Perez was also previously indicted for possession of an unregistered destructive device for a Jan. 15 incident.
During a detention hearing, evidence was presented linking Perez to a Jan. 22 burglary of the Victoria Islamic Center as well as a Jan. 28 burglary and arson of the mosque.
"Again they disabled the alarm, and they got [into the mosque]," said Martinez. "The motion detectors showed at 1:56 a.m. the back door was open and somebody went in."
"Everyone deserves the right to exercise their religious beliefs without obstruction," said FBI assistant special agent in charge, Ed Michel, who helped lead the investigation.
If convicted, Perez faces up to 20 years in prison for the hate crime. He also faces up to 10 years for possessing an unregistered destructive device. If convicted of use of a fire to commit a felony, the penalty is a consecutive and mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. All of the counts carry a potential $250,000 penalty, according to authorities.
However, investigators believe Perez did not act alone.
"Somebody saw something. Somebody must have heard something in many of these cases," said Agent Michel. "So, I would just ask if you hear something about somebody doing something like this or you know someone--please call us at 713-693-5000."
Michel said the FBI is using all of their resources to keep the surrounding community safe and to prevent an attack like this from happening again.
"We're going to combine our resources effectively to make sure this doesn't happen," said Michel.
"This indictment will send notice to violators that such crimes will not be tolerated, [they] will be thoroughly investigated and thoroughly prosecuted," said Martinez.
The Victoria Islamic Center broke ground for their rebuild in late May. Hundreds came to show their support for the Muslim community.
"This story started as a terrible start -- a mosque on fire -- but ended with a pleasant community coming together to rebuild our mosque," said Ajrami.