MIAMI—Madeline Giardiello woke up from surgery Friday morning to find out that her son, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, had just been arrested by the FBI for allegedly mailing homemade explosives to 13 high-profile Democrats.
When Giardiello saw Sayoc’s face on the news, her lawyer Ronald Lowy told The Daily Beast, it was her first real glimpse of her son in three and a half years. Back in 2015, after years of fighting over his inability to hold down a job or seek help for what they saw as mental illness, Giardiello had kicked Sayoc out of her house, where he occasionally stayed.
That’s when Sayoc “drew the line,” Lowy said during an interview on Saturday. “He said ‘I hate you. I don’t want anything more to do with you.’”
Sayoc’s estrangement from his family, Lowy said, was instrumental in shaping him into the man who, according to prosecutors, sent crude pipe bombs to critics of President Donald Trump, including former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, billionaire George Soros and actor Robert De Niro.
Sayoc, who was born in Brooklyn but had lived in Florida for more than 30 years, had long struggled with mental illness, the lawyer said. He suggested psychological issues were behind an an extensive criminal record that dated to a 1991 charge of grand theft but also included arrests for an alleged bomb threat, possession of steroids and shoplifting.
Until recently, the Filipino-Italian event promoter had a narrow set of interests: bodybuilding, exotic dancing, and the Seminole tribe of Florida. In fact, he presented himself as a member of the tribe, though a Seminole spokesperson said there was “no evidence” that Sayoc had any relationship with the nation or the casino it operates.
For years, Sayoc cobbled together odd jobs and pastimes at the intersection of his interests. When Lowy first met him, Sayoc came to his office with a scrapbook under his arm that contained autographed images of his favorite exotic dancers. His car was covered in Native American memorabilia and his Facebook pages were filled with advertisements for male revues and discount clothing.
But by 2018, Sayoc’s obsessions had shifted. The 56-year-old had registered to vote as a Republican and moved into a white van plastered with pro-Trump, anti-Democrat decals, including an image of Hillary Clinton in the crosshair. The manager of a pizzeria where he worked as a deliveryman described him to the Daily Beast as “anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Jews.”
“Who is this person? This person did not exist three years ago,” said Lowy, who has known Sayoc since defending him against a shoplifting charge in 2000. “Never heard a racist word out of his mouth when I knew him.”
In Lowy's view, the transformation of Sayoc had a lot to do with a fraught family dynamic.
“If you want to know about causation,” the attorney said, “there are three reasons.
"Number one: He was isolated from his family. Number two: He hated his mother for being a Democrat—this is a nice way to get back at her, don’t you think? And the third: He heard a voice calling his name, saying that there’s a war happening, that the Democrats are the enemy, that the media is the enemy, and that you are my soldiers.”
Trump, the lawyer observed, represented everything Sayoc’s own mother did not.
Lowy met Giardiello in the 1990s, when a local circuit judge referred him to her in a commercial suit involving her makeup company. “It was such a pleasure working with her,” the attorney recalled. “She was so classy. There’s an air about her of such charisma, of such sophistication, you know you are dealing with a woman of depth.”
After the suit settled, Lowy and Giardiello remained friends. The lawyer says Sayoc’s mother plays a major role in the wealthy, suburban community of Aventura, where they both live.
“She served on the Marketing Council of Aventura,” he said. “She was president of her condo association. And this is just a tiny example: Yesterday, the Aventura Police Chief went to the hospital just to visit her, and to ask if there’s anything he can do for her and to express how badly he feels about what’s happened with her son. This is a woman of integrity, responsibility, community service.”
Sayoc, on the other hand, wasn’t Lowy’s usual type of client. “I don’t represent people in vans very frequently,” the lawyer noted. Also, Lowy is an active Democrat. “I was a delegate for Bill Clinton at the convention,” he said. “I was on the rules committee for the national party.”
The attorney had no compunction about giving his opinions on Sayoc's politics. While he has been very media-friendly, Lowy refused to give interviews with Fox News. And in the hours after Sayoc’s arrest, when people dubbed him the “MAGA bomber,” Lowy called him by a different nickname: The Republican Bomber.
“I don’t like MAGA bomber, honestly, because he was really inspired by crazy Republicans,” Lowry said. “I want people to think of the word ‘Republican’ with ‘bomber.’”
Still, Lowy admits that Sayoc's political views centered on Trump. “You can see how much he came to idolize Trump, if you look at his van,” he said. “Every single person Trump hated became his enemy.” The van’s license plate, a senior law enforcement official told the Daily Beast, is actually a novelty plate that shows Trump and Vice President Pence waving .
Sayoc had been living in the van at the time of his arrest, which took place hours after he finished a DJ shift a nondescript West Palm Beach strip joint called Ultra. Authorities believe that the white Dodge Ram was more than just Sayoc’s home, but the place where he allegedly built the explosive device—a rolling bomb factory.
A fingerprint on one of the packages led federal agents to Sayoc, who was arrested Friday morning near the van shortly after authorities intercepted two more bombs, including one sent to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
The former male stripper—who appears to have run a Facebook page titled “Chippen Fellas” and who hawked Trump-branded suits on another Facebook page—is due in federal court on Monday to face charges that could land him in prison for more than 50 years.
Michael Daly and Atena Sherry contributed reporting