VICTORIA, Texas (CN) – A South Texas man who derisively called Muslims “towelheads” faces up to 40 years in prison after a federal jury convicted him Monday for setting a mosque on fire.
The jury returned its guilty verdict Monday afternoon for Marq Vincent Perez, 26, of Victoria, after a five-day trial and three hours of deliberations, convicting him of a hate crime, using fire to commit a felony and possession of an unregistered destructive device.
The prosecution’s star witness was K.R., a 17-year-old former friend of Perez, who testified that he helped Perez break into the Victoria Islamic Center in January 2017 and watched Perez set the building on fire.
K.R., whose full name was withheld because he is a minor, also testified that Perez reacted gleefully to the sight of the flames “jumping up and down like a little kid,” Southern District of Texas U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick’s office said in a statement.
To prove the hate crime charge, prosecutors called 19 witnesses to the stand, including some who exchanged messages with Perez in which he called Muslims “towelheads.” An FBI agent testified that Perez’s Facebook page was rife with anti-Muslim messages.
Prosecutors said that even without K.R.’s testimony they had enough evidence to prove Perez’s guilt. In addition to the arson expert who testified the fire was set intentionally, investigators found things stolen from the mosque at Perez’s home.
Perez’s defense attorney Mark Di Carlo tried to place the blame on K.R., who has not been charged with a federal crime but is facing state charges, according to the Victoria Advocate newspaper.
Omar Rachid, a member of the Victoria Islamic Center, said that K.R. had apologized months ago for his involvement in the break-in and fire, but Perez has not offered an apology, the Advocate reported.
“I guess I would say sorry, too, if I could stay out of jail,” Di Carlo said in his closing argument.
Perez’s possession of a destructive device charge stems from an unrelated incident in which he threw homemade fireworks at a parked car in Victoria on Jan. 15, 2017, two weeks before he torched the mosque.
Perez could also be fined up to $750,000 at his Oct. 2 sentencing hearing.