JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 69-year-old man whose East Arlington home raided Friday night was planning a mass shooting of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and FBI announced Monday.
Sheriff Mike Williams said Bernandino Bolatete's plan came to law enforcement's attention from a tip in late October. An undercover officer contacted him and the two met on several occasions at local gun ranges. Williams said Bolatete confirmed to the undercover detective in secretly recorded conversations that he hated Muslims and outlined his idea to carry out a mass shooting.
"The investigation confirmed the suspect was planning on carrying out a mass shooting and he already had the weaponry necessary to carry out the attack," Williams said.
According to the indictment, after the undercover operative sold Bolatete a silencer for $100 last week, he was arrested on a federal weapons violation. At this point, that is the only criminal charge against him, but it carries a maximum penalty to up to 10 years in prison.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said the purchase of a silencer takes a long time to achieve legally, and obtaining one is unlikely.
"It's a long process -- one to four months to get approved for that, and it's a lot of paperwork involved," Smith said. "Even once a person is approved, if they are approved, it still must be signed off by the chief of police in that jurisdiction. And, in many cases, they will not sign off unless it's for someone who is involved in law enforcement."
In a transcript of the conversations included in the criminal complaint, Bolatete said he had five rifles, one of which was an AR-15 that can be converted to into an AR-47. He suggested going to the Islamic center on a Friday because it is "their Sunday equivalent to us Christians is Friday ... go up to the tower and start shooting, right? It will be great, right?"
DOCUMENT: Criminal complaint details charges
Williams said the FBI was notified, and plans to protect the center were put into place while the investigation continued. As soon as Bolatete was arrested, the center's imam was informed that "the threat had been neutralized."
"Due to many safeguards we had in place during this investigation, at no time were he or any of the members of his congregation at risk," FBI Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer said.
Ashraf Shaikh, chairman of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida's board of trustees, said he is aware of periodic threats made to the center during his 40-plus years in Jacksonville and is thankful that nothing like this has ever happened.
"It's very sad that something like this was being planned or threatened in Jacksonville," Shaikh said. "Thank God that our law enforcement (agencies) were vigilant, that they got wind of it and handled it very professionally."
Shaikh said thousands of people come and go through the Islamic center every week, and it's frightening to know that police believe someone planned to harm them.
"We have our congregational prayers five times a day, and then we have our weekly prayer, and we have school on Saturday, and then another school on Sunday. And we have a full-time school during the week," he said. "A lot is at stake. And a lot of people could have been hurt, God forbid, if anybody had done anything of that nature."
According to the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office on Friday, Bolatete repeated expressed his hatred of Muslims. Bolatete said that while he lived in the Philippines, he got into an argument with a police officer. Bolatete told the undercover detective that the policeman shot him, so he fired back and killed the officer.
A former co-worker of Bolatete told News4Jax that it was a “huge shock” to learn of his arrest for plotting to shoot up the Islamic Center.
"He’s a sweet old man who wouldn’t hurt a fly,” she said, adding that he never said anything about hating Muslims.
The woman said co-workers were aware that Bolatete had guns and went to a shooting range in St. Johns County, but as for plotting a mass shooting, “You just never know.”
Bolatete was not very active on his Facebook page, but did reply to a comment posted there, writing:
Let's help keep America safe, free and peaceful! Don't just be a part of the helpless victims and statistics of these crazy "jihadists", at the same time protecting our 2nd Ammendment rights. Long live America!!!"
Bolatete’s brother, who was out of town for work, told News4Jax by phone Monday night that Bolatete has been living with him for the last eight years. He said his brother has a passion for guns, but he never knew his brother would plan a violent attack.
Neighbor Vill Brigilio said he was surprised Friday when he saw FBI agents searching the East Arlington home on Eucalyptus Drive, where Bolatete lives with his brother.
"It was shocking. Of course it is. We never did expect that," Brigilio said. "They're quiet. We have a very quiet neighborhood around here."
A bond hearing for Bolatete is set for Tuesday afternoon at the U.S. District Courthouse in Jacksonville. News4Jax was told his family will attend the hearing.
In addition to the JSO and FBI, the Federal Department of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Attorney's Office and State Attorney's Office cooperated in the investigation, which is continuing. Williams said Bolatete could face additional charges.
Smith added that reporting a suspicion is crucial, and that Bolatete's arrest proves the value of the “see something, say something” campaign.
"When it comes to reporting suspicious activity, you're not looking for a specific nationality or race of certain people. You're looking for their activity that is suspicious," Smith said. "A lot of tips turn out to be not bona fide. But that's OK. They still want to get those tips anyway. Call them and then, maybe, something they're already working on or something that could spark their attention to look further into it. And, in this case, it worked."
Counterterrorism organizations in the U.S. offer this advice when it comes to reporting suspicious activity:
- Trust your instincts.
- If it doesn't look right, report it.
- If it doesn't smell right, report it.
- If it doesn't sound right, report it.
Some examples would be people drawing or measuring important buildings, strangers asking questions about security procedures, cars or trucks left in "no parking zones" in front of buildings, or chemical smells or fumes that worry you