A 69-year-old Florida man was arrested last week after allegedly planning to carry out a mass shooting at a Florida mosque, authorities announced Monday.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said his office received a tip in late October that Bernandino Bolatete had expressed "strong anti-Islamic sentiment" and planned a mass shooting at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. An undercover detective began speaking to Bolatete and other state and federal agencies began to take steps to prevent an attack.
According to court records, the detective became friendly with Bolatete, a Philippine national who has a green card, at a local shooting range. Bolatete confessed his failing health — the result of being shot in the kidney by a police officer in the Philippines years ago. Bolatete claimed to have killed the officer who shot him, court records said, and he also described his own prowess with firearms.
In one conversation, the detective and Bolatete drove past the mosque on their way to the firing range. Bolatete said he expected bad news about his remaining kidney at an upcoming doctor's appointment and would then go to the mosque to kill worshippers, according to a transcript of the conversation in court documents:
"I have to bring my ... my long guns there and uh, stay at that, uh, tower. Keep shooting those Muslims, you know, on Friday. (laughing)"
Bolatete revealed he had considered how to access the minaret at the Islamic center, the documents said. And he told the detective he had five rifles.
"So we'll try ... we will try a Christian doing uh, terroristic [sic] act this time, hum, to the Muslims the, they [laughing] they doing it all the time. You know?" he said, according to the court records.
On a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Bolatete, he described himself as a shooting sport enthusiast and posted multiple photos of himself at a gun range. At least one post contained anti-Muslim propaganda — a fake news story headlined "EVIL: Radical Muslims Rape, Make Woman Quote Quran, But How They 'Finish Her Off' Is the Worst."
In another conversation, the detective told a story about a Muslim man who hadn't paid him for work on the man's home. Bolatete offered advice to the detective on how to kill the man and get away with it, according to the court documents.
On Nov. 24, the detective mentioned a friend was selling a firearm silencer. Three days later, Bolatete asked the detective if the silencer was still for sale because he "might need it," court records said. Bolatete said he did not want to fill out paperwork to register the silencer because it would give authorities the right to search him, court records said.
Bolatete was charged Friday on suspicion of illegally possessing a firearm silencer, a federal offense. The purchase of the silencer was captured on an audio recording, according to court records. A Jacksonville Sheriff's Office SWAT team recovered it from Bolatete as they searched the room he was renting in a local home.
The FBI then informed leaders at the Islamic center about the alleged plans as well as Bolatete's arrest. At no time during the investigation was anyone at the mosque at risk, FBI Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer said Monday.
If convicted, Bolatete would face up to 10 years in prison, and he could still be charged with other offenses related to his alleged plans. A civil rights investigation is ongoing, Spencer added.
"[The FBI's mission] includes enforcing civil rights statutes and protecting the public’s right to exercise freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment," he said. "A civil rights investigation is ongoing. The FBI will not stand for threats of violence in our community against any group, and we will protect the freedoms the Constitution provides."
The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations praised the arrest of Bolatete, saying the attack he allegedly hoped to commit was an act of terrorism.
"This should concern not only Muslims, but all Florida residents regardless of faith," CAIR-Florida communications director Wilfredo Ruiz said in a statement. "CAIR-Florida continues to work closely with our community to keep them safe by providing security training sessions in mosques and other locations throughout the state."