The man accused of sending pipe bombs to President Barack Obama, oft-vilified political donor George Soros, and other prominent liberals had his house stolen by the largest unpunished crime in American history.
Cesar Sayoc’s Fort Lauderdale home was illegitimately foreclosed in 2009, years before Sayoc would become a rabid fan of President Donald Trump and begin issuing dark threats to liberal figures on social media. The bank involved, IndyMac, would later be absorbed by the financial conglomerate then run by Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Sayoc’s foreclosure nightmare is the same as millions of other Americans’. He paid way too much for too little house, taking out a huge loan from an arm of Angelo Mozilo’s notorious mortgage swindling firm Countrywide before re-financing with IndyMac later. The market crashed almost immediately, the reckless Wall Street conduct that had been driving prices out of wack for years finally coming unspooled at just the wrong moment for Sayoc.
Partial records of the foreclosure reviewed by ThinkProgress indicate Sayoc tried, fruitlessly, to stop the proceedings in court. Had the judge listened, or the government meaningfully intervened against the nationwide fraud that included his case, the courts might have noticed the scam. Documents turned up by foreclosure fraud expert David Dayen show Sayoc’s mortgage was one of the many tainted by illegal “robosigning” practices undertaken to cover up the illegitimate nature of the pillaging firms like Mnuchin’s specialized in. Trillions of dollars in houses were fraudulently passed through the bubble and the robosigning mill, but the government struck face-saving paper-tiger settlements with the culprits without ever clawing back the vast majority of stolen homes. (Dayen has the gory legal specifics of Sayoc’s case here.)
Since the looters were never held to account in the years that followed, victims of the housing bubble and subsequent foreclosure fraud boom had cause to wonder whether the government even cared that they’d been screwed. Such resentment can curdle fast, as people who felt like they’d finally made it discovered they’d been cheated, were worse off than before, and had no prospect of being rescued, let alone made whole.
Property records from the period surrounding Sayoc’s ill-fated attempt to become a homeowner illustrate just how close he must have felt he was to attaining the kind of long-lasting financial stability and quality-of-life gains that working-class buyers chased endlessly as bankers puffed the housing bubble up to impossible and devastating proportions.
The house Sayoc paid $400,000 for had been appraised at less than a quarter that value in 2002, according to Broward County property records. As the appraisers there checked in annually on the home, they tracked the rapid overheating of the housing market overall. Like other houses in the Coral Ridge Isles neighborhood where Sayoc so briefly lived, the bungalow spiked in price without anyone laying a meaningful finger to its structure. There was no second story addition, no house-flipper kitchen remodel to explain how the modest 2-bed 2-bath stucco home with a pool out back nearly tripled in value from 2002 to 2004.
Appraised at $271,480 that year, then $336,200 the next, the hot neighborhood close to the water was exactly the kind of hunting ground Mozilo’s monstrous white-collar predator needed to thrive.
The folly of Sayoc’s $400,000 purchase — almost $25,000 above market even then — is easy to see in hindsight. When it finally sold at an illegitimate foreclosure auction, courtesy of the robosigning fraud systematically pursued by Mnuchin’s conglomerate and greenlit by a feckless judiciary, the next bank to take possession paid less than $170,000 for control of the house. They made out well on the theft, flipping the house for $273,000 to the couple who still live there. Even at a price one third below what Sayoc had paid, PMG Mortgage & Lending turned a six-figure profit (less whatever negligible amount it cost to sit on the thing for a year).
We now have the earliest inklings of what life became for the deranged would-be assassin in the years that followed. He scraped through 2009 and 2010 on unemployment insurance checks totaling less than $15,000, according to bankruptcy records. The same files show Sayoc opened almost two dozen different credit cards and a slew of other charge-card accounts at stores like Lowe’s and Macy’s in those grim jobless Great Recession years.
When he finally got a job — running a small food store in Hollywood, Florida — his paychecks were just $425 a week after taxes. He managed to hold onto his truck, a decade-old SUV that had almost 300,000 miles on it by the time he filed for bankruptcy in 2012, but not much else. “Lives w/ Mom. Has no furniture,” a note hand-scrawled on the bankruptcy papers filed three months after his 50th birthday reads. A few pages away, his lawyer notes Sayoc had nothing in the bank, and just $50 worth of clothes to his name.
The bankruptcy filing worked. For $1,300 in a lawyer’s fees, Sayoc got the court to wipe out more than $21,000 in debts he couldn’t pay — a damn good deal, stronger return on investment in raw percentage terms than mortgage swindlers had been able to pick off his bones in Coral Ridge Isles.
But the liberating reset of his finances seems to have delivered only a dead-cat bounce. He launched a couple businesses with names suggesting a catering or tech concern, but his LinkedIn page indicates he’d actually returned to his old line: male burlesque dancing and bookings, a gig he’d previously chased throughout the 1990s.
The dismal history Sayoc’s public records sketch out doubles as the perfect recipe for a populist political seduction. The bright red hat with the simple who-could-disagree-with-THAT? slogan that Sayoc proudly sports in numerous pictures from his social media accounts was tailor-made for people like him; it’s the 21st century version of the muscle-morons depicted in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, desperate and credulous toward any sufficiently inspiring snake oil that comes with the right machismo attached.
“Economic anxiety” is usually a fig leaf for reporters and political consultants looking to sidestep Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and seething cruelty, to pretend they’re not the main attractions that they are to his supporters. But in this episode from Sayoc’s life story — almost a gender-flipped version of the scene in The Big Short where a stripper details the many expensive houses she’s bought — the connection between simple people who dreamed big and the horrifying white-collar predators who made fortunes off of their un-savvy ambition is clearer than usual. Trump wasn’t the first rich guy in a bad suit to get Sayoc bought into a pipe dream. And unlike the bankers who fractured America’s striving working class a decade ago, the bill of goods Trump’s selling involves naked aggression, hating neighbors instead of just trying to have them.
Of course, millions of other homeowners similarly hosed have not turned to pipe bombs. ThinkProgress has written about many of them, including some who aimed their righteous fury at Barack Obama and Eric Holder — but via sit-ins, petitions, lawsuits, desperate attempts to rally a system that was supposed to protect them but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it this time. In case it needs to be said: No misfortune can either justify or explain Sayoc’s deranged attempts to murder the former president and attorney general, or the rest of the hated liberal figures he targeted with pipe bombs.
Instead, Sayoc’s American tragedy at the hands of Wall Street villains — including one who holds a cabinet position previously occupied by a guy who intentionally derailed one potential post-crash crackdown from Washington — illustrates a key ingredient in the Trump-Bannon recipe for revenge-fueled nationalistic right-wing populism. Millions of people were betrayed by fraud targeted at the very same nexus of hard work and long-term investment that America has always told its citizens is crucial to upward mobility, responsible citizenship, and social status. Some of them were permanently broken by it. And broken people are like to turn to the kind of dangerous, loud villains unafraid to lie to them about how their lives might be fixed — especially when those espousing a more sensible, humane, dignified alternative politics have failed to punish the powerful forces that broke the rules in the first place.