Suspect in Fla. Mosque Fire Confessed: Detectives | NBC Bay Area
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Suspect in Fla. Mosque Fire Confessed: Detectives



    A judge denied bond for Joseph Schreiber, the man accused in the arson attack at a Fort Pierce mosque. (Published Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016)

    An ex-convict who posted anti-Islamic rants online confessed to setting fire to a mosque that the Orlando nightclub shooter occasionally attended, and said he was embarrassed by the crime, according to an arrest affidavit released Thursday.

    St. Lucie County sheriff's detectives wrote in the affidavit that after Joseph Michael Schreiber was arrested Wednesday, he told detectives that he had set the fire at the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The blaze also coincided with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

    Schreiber, 32, told detectives he never intended to hurt anyone. No one was injured in the fire, which burned a 10-by-10-foot (3-by-3-meter) hole in the roof at the back of the mosque's main building and blackened its eaves with soot.

    Schreiber, who previously served two prison terms for theft, was developed as a suspect partly because of a tip from the public, the affidavit said.

    He was arrested without incident Wednesday and charged with second-degree arson with a hate crime enhancement, a crime that carries a maximum 30-year sentence.

    St. Lucie County Judge Philip Yacucci ordered Schreiber held without bail Thursday, calling him a danger to the community and a flight risk. He also noted that Schreiber had made anti-Islamic posts on social media. Last July, Schreiber posted on Facebook that "All Islam is radical" and that all Muslims should be treated as terrorists and criminals.

    Schreiber, who is Jewish, stated that, "IF AMERICA truly wants peace and safety and pursuit of happiness they should consider all forms of ISLAM as radical. ... ALL ISLAM IS RADICAL, and should be considered TERRORIST AND CRIMANALS (sic) and all hoo (sic) participate in such activity should be found guilty of WAR CRIM (sic) until law and order is restored in this beautiful free country."

    Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Florida, said Schreiber "obviously doesn't know about the efforts our community is engaged in with our cousins, the Jews, not only in Florida but throughout the nation."

    Ruiz criticized Gov. Rick Scott and other politicians who failed to speak out after the fire and denounce what he called "terrorism."

    "We are certainly missing our political leaders who are probably too busy campaigning now to do a minimum expression of solidarity" with Florida's Muslims, Ruiz said. "Certainly our governor is missing from this."

    Scott's office issued a brief statement in response late Thursday saying only, "Local law enforcement is investigating and the state stands ready to assist in their efforts in any way."

    Schreiber was previously sentenced twice to state prison for theft, according to records from the Florida Department of Corrections. The records show he served his first sentence from March 2008 to July 2009 and his second from June 2010 to August 2014. St. Lucie County Public Defender Diamond Litty, whose office has been assigned to Schreiber's case, had no comment Thursday.

    Ralph Alfonso is a former inmate who says he served time with Schreiber at Lawtey Correctional Institution, a faith-based prison where both were incarcerated earlier this decade. In a telephone interview Thursday, Alfonso described Schreiber as being a "couple cans short of a six-pack" and doesn't think he is intellectually capable of setting the blaze without coaching.

    He said Schreiber joined a Messianic Jewish group he led because he was looking for a place to fit in. Messianic Jews follow Jewish law and the Torah but also believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. He said Schreiber sometimes would say something against Muslims, but "we would tell him that's not what we believe, that it is not godly."

    "He wasn't a bad guy, he was just an oddball that no one really wanted to hang around with," said Alfonso, who was released in May after serving 17 years for aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He now works as an electrician. He said his group tried to shield Schreiber from the bullying he received.

    A weekend surveillance video from the mosque showed a man on a motorcycle approaching the building while talking on a cellphone, according to the affidavit. He carried a bottle of liquid and some papers and left when there was a flash. The first 911 calls were made about 45 minutes later, after the fire had spread to the attic. It took about four-and-a-half hours for firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

    The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation into the fire.

    At the mosque Thursday, member Farhad Khan said he has been in the United States for 50 years and is not surprised that non-Muslims are making donations to help rebuild.

    "People have good hearts," he said.

    Omar Mateen was killed by police after opening fire at the Pulse nightclub on June 12 in a rampage that left 49 victims dead and 53 wounded, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Mateen professed allegiance to the Islamic State group. His father is among roughly 100 people who regularly attend the mosque.