Family saw early signs of mental problems in mail bomber suspect Cesar Sayoc, but no help
AVENTURA — Even as a young man, Cesar Sayoc showed signs that he struggled with mental health problems, but his family could not persuade him to seek help.
Sayoc, now facing federal charges in connection with mail bombs sent across the country to top Democrats and media personalities, would get angry when his relatives asked him to seek help, said Ronald Lowy, a Miami lawyer who has represented Sayoc and the family for years.
“The family has always from a young age encouraged him to get treatment and mental health counseling,” Lowy said in an interview Saturday. “He refuses. He gets angry. He says, ‘I hate you, you think I’m abnormal.’ He just won’t see reality.”
Sayoc, 56, was arrested Friday in Plantation, accused of sending mail bombs to former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with other Democrats who have been critical of President Donald Trump. The former strip club worker and pizza parlor employee listed his mother's Aventura condo as his residence, but he has lived for as many as six years in his van.
Sayoc's behavior struck some bosses and colleagues as odd, even prompting one employer to fire him. A lawyer who deposed him in 2014 was stunned by his outlandish, and untrue, claims on a resume that included professional soccer player, an aspiring veterinarian and a financial wizard able to raise struggling businesses from near collapse.
But mostly, Sayoc lived a troubled life, unable to hold a job, unlikely to maintain friendships and unwilling to join the ranks of those in the everyday world who paid rent or a mortgage to keep a roof over his head.
This is the man his family knew, Lowy said, and he lived that way for years never having been mentally examined or diagnosed with an illness.
“He would come to my office each time carrying a scrapbook and he would show me pictures of him with naked strippers, body builders, wrestlers. And he would say, ‘I know him. I know her,’ as if he’s impressing me,’” said Lowy, who has known the family for several decades. “People don’t get impressed with that really. But he was reaching as far as he could to show you that, 'Look, I’m important.’
“He was a lost soul.”
Sayoc’s aunt, Theresa Sharp-Russell of Boca Raton, described her nephew as a “very, very disturbed” man who struggled to stay out of trouble, lost touch with family and had few if any close friends.
She said Sayoc clearly had problems. He jumped from business to business, career to career.
“I don’t remember him ever having a friend,” Sharp-Russell said. “When he would show up to a dinner party that we had, he always came alone.”
As a child, Sayoc was cute and friendly, Sharp-Russell said. He loved sports, particularly soccer. Sayoc changed in his early teens after his father left. He retaliated against his mother after she remarried, a marriage he didn’t approve of, Sharp-Russell said.
Lowy said he met Sayoc's mother in the 1980s, representing her in a commercial lawsuit. Later, she asked him to help Sayoc with some legal problems, and she cautioned Lowy that her son had some mental health issues.
“He lives in a little bit of a fantasy world,” Lowy said. “He says he’s a Seminole Indian, which he’s not. He has no Indian blood. He’s 50 percent Filipino and 50 percent American Italian.”
Sayoc ran into trouble while working at a dry cleaning business. In August 2002, he screamed at a Florida Power and Light employee on the phone, angry about a bill, Lowy said.
Sayoc threatened the employee with a bomb, but later told police it was a joke.
“If I didn’t know him already and if I didn’t recognize that he was immature, a low IQ, emotionally stunted, someone who had trouble having a theoretical or conceptual discussion with you, I might have said to myself ‘Gee, is this a real threat?’” Lowy said.
Law enforcement didn’t find any guns or other weapons with Sayoc when they arrested him and “found a guy who was upset that his electricity was turned off.”
In court, Sayoc "appeared sheepish, embarrassed, regretful, apologetic," the lawyer said. The judge ordered probation, Lowy said, because Sayoc seemed more like "a confused, immature individual that did not have control over their emotions.”
Lowy said Sayoc was placed on probation for a year where law enforcement didn’t report any problems.
“I don’t believe he was a bomber at that time," Lowy said. "I believe he made a crazy threat, but I don’t think he was a danger.”
In a 2004 case, Sayoc was charged with falsifying his driver's license. He had modified the date on it to “make himself look younger," Lowy said, because he wanted to impress women at bars.
Around 2006, Sharp-Russell said she sold Sayoc a house in Fort Lauderdale. She wasn’t sure he’d be able to get a loan, but he did. Eventually that home went into foreclosure, and he lost it in 2009.
She said it was then that Sayoc's life began to spiral even more out of control. He filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
“I think that was the last time that I saw him, and he started living out of his van,” Sharp-Russell said.
It was about that time that Sayoc was working at Stir Crazy Showgirls strip club near Miami.
Joe Puig, who trained Sayoc for the strip club job six years ago, described him as an “unhinged and unstable” man, who told fantastical stories seemingly to impress people.
“He would come up with off the wall stories every other day,” said Puig, a former general manager at Stir Crazy.
Sayoc claimed to be a veteran of the adult entertainment business, but Puig said he often struggled with the basics.
He talked about plans to open his own strip club and having investors, but Puig saw no evidence it was true. He talked about being a male stripper, but Puig said he didn’t have the body for it. And he talked about having a team of exotic dancers in the Fort Lauderdale area.
“He’d show me some pictures of his girls that he had posed with and all that, and he said they danced for him and all that. 'Great bring them down. The more pretty girls, the better it is,'” Puig said he told Sayoc. “And you’re managing, so the more business you get, the better it is.'
“It never materialized. Quickly within a few days I knew he was full of crap.”
Puig said it’s not unusual for people in the adult entertainment business to talk themselves up. But he said he got a sense that something wasn’t right about Sayoc.
“There was just something about him, you couldn’t quite put your finger on it,” Puig said. “It was just strange, the way he handled himself, the way he does things.”
Sayoc only worked at Stir Crazy for four to six weeks, Puig said. He was fired after management learned he was living out of his van.
David McDonald, a Miami attorney who deposed Sayoc in 2014 for a civil lawsuit filed by another Stir Crazy employee, said Sayoc spoke about his past in a very grandiose, self-aggrandizing way.
He claimed that he’d played professional soccer with the prestigous A.C. Milan club in Italy. He said he then played arena football in Arizona, worked as a professional wrestler, was a club promoter for the Chippendale male dance club and was working on a degree to become a veterinarian.
“He seemed to be telling very fantastic stories that didn’t seem possible to be true,” McDonald said. “But he told them in a way that was very matter of fact, and you felt like this guy really believes what he’s saying, even though it’s impossible that what he’s saying in accurate.”
McDonald described Sayoc as a man who wanted to portray himself as an integral part of highly-successful sports and business ventures. And he seemed comfortable doing it. The lies rolled off his tongue.
“The manner and comfortability in which he would describe it made me a little leery about him as an individual, in terms of not setting him off,” McDonald said. “Somebody who’s telling a fish story, when you actually catch them in the lies, you don’t know how they’re going to react.”
Lowy said three years ago, Sayoc cut ties with his family. That's when he realized he was living in the van.
“Back then, the vehicle wasn’t covered with political posters. There were none,” Lowy said. “He had no interest in politics. They were covered with Indian, Native American memorabilia.”
Lowy said by then, he realized for himself that Sayoc “wasn’t working on all cylinders.”
In the past few years, Lowy said he lost track of Cesar after he stopped talking to his family.
Sayoc's mother remained hospitalized Saturday, recovering from a surgery she scheduled Friday with her husband and two daughters by her side.
The public needs "to see that this has nothing to due with who the mother is,” Lowy said. “You could have a wonderful family and what explains the one that might have come out a bit off at birth. You don’t know the factors that could lead to this.”
Sharp-Russell said her nephew is not a terrorist. As far as she knows, he doesn’t own a gun. She described Sayoc as a “kid who wanted attention.
“He was looking for a father figure. He found it in Trump.”