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One of the men charged with a shooting that took place after a white nationalist speaking event in Gainesville last October has accepted a plea deal with state prosecutors.

Colton Fears. (Courtesy of Alachua County Jail)

Colton Fears. (Courtesy of Alachua County Jail)

Colton Fears, 29, pled guilty to an accessory to attempted first-degree murder charge during his pre-trial hearing on Monday morning.

Fears’ lawyer, private attorney Lucas Taylor of Live Oak, said the agreement means Fears will waive his right to trial and accept the punishment handed down by 8th Circuit Court Judge James Colaw.

His guilty plea means Fears will face a maximum of 15 years in prison. A lighter sentence was not a part of his deal with prosecutors.

“There is no, you know, indication or promise whether it would be lenient or more harsh one way or another,” Taylor said as he was leaving the courthouse.

Fears was arrested alongside his brother 30-year-old William Fears and the alleged shooter, 29-year-old Tyler Tenbrink, on Oct. 19, 2017, after the three had traveled from Texas to see white nationalist Richard Spencer speak at the University of Florida. Following the event, the three were traveling in a silver Jeep when they got into an altercation with a group of protestors sitting at a bus stop on Archer Road.

The men chanted and praised Adolf Hitler in front of the protesters, one of whom hit their Jeep’s window with a baton.

The group drove a short distance away before police say Tenbrink got out and fired once towards the crowd of protestors, with the bullet striking a building behind them. Witnesses say Colton Fears and William Fears were yelling for Tenbrink to shoot the group.

All three were arrested on I-75 around 9 p.m. that night. Tenbrink admitted to firing the shot while in custody and police found two handguns in their vehicle.

Charges were dropped against William Fears for his role in the incident. He was subsequently jailed in Texas earlier this year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, awaiting trial for choking his girlfriend and illegally owning a firearm.

As part of his deal with prosecutors, Colton Fears will testify in another trial and his guilty plea will stand regardless of whether or not Fears fulfills his part of the agreement.

Tenbrink’s trial for attempted murder is scheduled to begin on Nov. 12.

Fears’ sentencing date is set for Nov. 21.

WUFT

Members of a South Texas mosque that was set ablaze last year went up to shake hands and hug prosecutors in a federal courtroom Monday.

Just moments before,12 jurors had announced they’d found the man accused of setting the fire guilty.

“Yes,” each said when asked one by one if that was their true verdict.

The trial of Marq Vincent Perez, who was indicted last year of a hate crime related to the Jan. 28, 2017 fire at the Victoria Islamic Center, began last week at the federal courthouse.

It took the jury about three hours of deliberations before finding him guilty of three felony counts including damage to a religious property, use of fire to commit a federal felony and possession of a destructive device related to an earlier incident.

 Construction on the new mosque is about 80-85 percent complete. Eleanor Dearman/Caller-Times


Construction on the new mosque is about 80-85 percent complete.
Eleanor Dearman/Caller-Times

“No group anywhere in the United States of America should be subjected to such hate crimes,” said Omar Rachid, who handles community and public relations for the mosque.

“I think what the jury has done today, this afternoon, is send a message loud and clear that such behavior and such crimes will not be tolerated,” he continued.

U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey will decide Perez’s sentence at an Oct. 2 hearing. The date could coincide with the opening of the newly built mosque.

“God works in mysterious ways, and maybe one of those ways he has in store for us is that the sentencing could very well take place at about the time we take possession of our new mosque,” Rachid said.

Perez, wearing a grey shirt and dark rimmed glasses, sat beside his attorney Mark Di Carlo Monday as federal prosecutors presented their closing arguments to a jury. His trial was expected to last around two weeks, but the presentation of evidence concluded Friday.

A video clip of the burning mosque played on a large screen in the courtroom as prosecutor Saeed Ahmed Mody began presenting his case.

“His intention was for damage and destruction, and that’s exactly what he did,” Mody said.

 Marq Vincent Perez, 26, is escorted from the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building after a pretrial hearing. Perez, of Victoria, is accused of intentionally setting a fire that destroyed a mosque at the Islamic Center of Victoria in January 2017. Contributed// Qiling Wang, Victoria Advocate


Marq Vincent Perez, 26, is escorted from the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building after a pretrial hearing. Perez, of Victoria, is accused of intentionally setting a fire that destroyed a mosque at the Islamic Center of Victoria in January 2017.
Contributed// Qiling Wang, Victoria Advocate

He argued it was Perez’s goal to “terrorize” the Muslim community. He described the Victoria Islamic Center as a place where the community would gather for joyous occasions — weddings and weekly potlucks — as well as sad occasions.

On the trial’s first day, the jury heard from a federal prosecutor who painted Perez as having an “absolute hatred” of Muslims. Sharad Sushil Khandelwal, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Perez became involved with a militia group on Facebook and began forming what he called “rogue units.”

On Jan. 15 Perez went on a “training mission” to throw an “improvised bomb” into a car, he said. After burglarizing the mosque with a juvenile identified as K.R. on Jan. 22, the two returned on Jan. 28 but this time, Perez set the mosque on fire, Khandelwal argued last week.

 Authorities have determined arson is responsible for the fire that destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center mosque on Jan. 28, 2017. Contributed photo/ATF


Authorities have determined arson is responsible for the fire that destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center mosque on Jan. 28, 2017.
Contributed photo/ATF

But during his closing arguments, Di Carlo maintained his client’s innocence. He told jurors that the juveline’s testimony is hearsay and promoted the idea that he was not a credible witness.

He also categorized the Jan. 15 incident as separate from the Jan. 28 burglary and fire. Khandelwal said due to their belief the June 15 incident was done as a “training mission,” the two crimes were connected. He also said Perez’s DNA was found on the “improvised bomb.”

The jury was shown Facebook messages that prosecutors say show Perez’s hate of Muslims.

“He can’t keep his mouth shut and he can’t keep his fingers off the laptop either,” Khandelwal said.

The jury also listened to testimony that showed Perez’s phone contained photos of the burning mosque and that items that were stolen from the mosque were found at Perez’s residence, according to prosecutors.

Di Carlo said the government “cherry picked and oh so carefully presented” their evidence against Perez.

“We only have what the government allowed us to see,” Di Carlo said.

He also suggested that Perez was “profiled” because he’s conservative, had a brief stint in the military and was allegedly a part of the militia group.

Di Carlo flipped through a copy of the Quran that had been admitted into evidence.

“And do not cover the truth with falsehood,” he read, asking the jury to find Perez not guilty.

He told reporters after the trial’s conclusion that the entirety of Perez’s social media postings and interview with investigators weren’t allowed to be entered into evidence at trial and that “only things that were adverse to his interests came in.”

Di Carlo said he was surprised by the jury’s decision.

“As is stated throughout the trial, we do not believe that the fact that the defendant disliked Muslims is proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” Di Carlo said. “Again, as stated during the trial, there was issues regarding his concern about Middle-Eastern people, about terrorists, about illegal immigrants and the mention of religion was very, very minimal.”

“I hope that point was made to the jurors,” he continued. “Perhaps it wasn’t made well enough.”

Di Carlo said Perez took the verdict “very somberly.”

U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick lauded the conviction as a commitment to protect religious liberty.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the religious liberty of all people and their ability to practice their faith without being the target of this kind of dangerous activity.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said the department ” is committed to holding hate crimes perpetrators accountable under the law.”

“All people are entitled to live free from violence and fear, regardless of their religion or place of worship,” Gore said. “Perez’s actions were criminal, unlawful and dangerous.”

Perez faces up to 20 years in federal prison for the hate crime count and up to 10 years for possessing an unregistered destructive device, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For use of a fire to commit a felony, the penalty is consecutive and he faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Each count carries a possible $250,000 fine.

And as Perez awaits a decision on how long he’ll be behind bars, members of the mosque are looking forward to opening the doors of their new mosque.

Construction is about 80-85 percent done. They are hoping to have it opened in September or early October, Rachid said.

One of the Victoria Islamic Center board members said despite the fire, they want the mosque to be a place that his open to the community.

“The last thing we want to do is for evil to win by making us … be separated from our community,” Abe Ajrami said.

He extended thoughts and prayers to Perez, adding that maybe Perez can use his time in jail to learn about Islam. He also extended prayers to Perez’s family.

“There is no hard feeling here, and I can tell you in the name of the Muslim community, Mr. and Mrs. Perez are invited to the open house.”

At the end of the day, what’s more important than the verdict is how the community came together following the fire, Ajrami said.

“That’s what gives me hope,” he said. “Whether Mr. Perez is out or in, that’s one person comparing to thousands in Victoria who made a clear statement that they are against the burning of any place of worship.”

Caller Times