Authorities thwart planned mass shooting at Fla. mosque
Detectives learned of the mass shooting threat in late October and started to build a case against the suspect
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
JACKSONVILLE — Local, state and federal authorities said Monday they thwarted a mass shooting at a Jacksonville mosque and arrested a 69-year-old Filipino immigrant who they say had obtained a rifle silencer from an undercover officer in the parking lot of a local sporting goods store.
Bernandino Gawala Bolatete is charged with knowingly receiving and possessing a silencer not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record, according the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said detectives learned of the mass shooting threat in late October and started to build a case against Bolatete.
“The investigation confirmed that the suspect was making plans to carry out a mass shooting, and he already had the weaponry necessary to complete the attack,” Williams said.
A criminal complaint filed Friday outlines the undercover investigation into Bolatete. According to the complaint, an undercover officer with the Sheriff’s Office was asked if he could help obtain a silencer for a rifle Nov. 27.
To avoid government scrutiny, the buyer asked that there be no paperwork associated with the sale, according to the complaint. The silencer was sold Friday in the parking lot of Academy Sports and Outdoors at 11901 Atlantic Blvd., according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Bolatete was arrested and faces up to 10 years in federal prison if he is convicted on the charge, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Williams said investigators went Friday to Bolatete’s home in the 13200 block of Eucalyptus Drive off Atlantic Boulevard to search for any additional weaponry that could be used to carry out an attack. Williams would not provide any details about the arrest but said Bolatete was taken into custody without incident.
The investigation started when the Sheriff’s Office received a tip from a citizen that Bolatete “expressed a hatred for Muslims and made a specific threat to ‘shoot up’ a mosque,” according to the complaint.
LIVE News Conference - Jacksonville man charged with illegal possession of a firearms silencer. Mass shooting was planned at Islamic Center and PREVENTED by JSO. FBI has now been given custody of suspect Bernardino Gawala Bolatete, 69 years old.Posted by Jacksonville Sheriff's Office on Monday, December 4, 2017
The citizen then introduced an undercover officer to Bolatete, according to the complaint, and the two went shooting together several times at a gun range.
The officer recorded conversations with Bolatete on Nov. 10, Nov. 14, Nov. 20 and Nov. 24 and provided them to the FBI as evidence, according to the complaint.
The officer learned Bolatete had a kidney removed after he was accidentally shot in the back in the Phillipines, according to the complaint. His remaining kidney is failing and was only functioning at 31 percent at his last examination three months ago, according to the complaint.
The officer was told if the kidney started performing at less than 30 percent he would have to undergo dialysis, according to the complaint, so Bolatete didn’t plan to survive the mass shooting at the mosque.
“If I ever decide to do that I’m not thinking of getting caught,” Bolatete said, according to the transcript. “I’ll … I’ll die there in that area. [laughter] They’ll be some sort of suicide thing … suicide by police?”
On one trip to the gun range in St. Augustine, the officer drove by the Islamic Center at 2333 St. Johns Bluff Rd. South, according to the complaint.
As he drove by the officer was shown the tower associated with the mosque where the mass shooting could take place, according to the complaint.
Bolatete told the officer he had five guns at his disposal, including an AR-15 that could be converted to an AR-47, according to the complaint.
The officer was told Muslims attended the mosque on Fridays, according to the complaint, so that would be the day to spring the attack.
“… One thing I know is that, uh, their Sunday equivalent to us Christians is Friday,” Bolatete said in one of the transcripts.
The Sheriff’s Office worked with the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies throughout the investigation. Charles Spencer, the special agent in charge of the Jacksonville FBI office, said officials at the Islamic Center were contacted shortly after the arrest was made.
Spencer said there were precautions in place to guard against a possible attack, and the FBI explained to mosque officials that they were never in danger.
MOSQUE WAS BOMBED IN 2010
The center on St. John’s Bluff Road has been around in some form since to 1980s. The threat was not its first.
The center was firebombed in 2010. About 80 people were inside the mosque when the crude bomb that was planted outside near a brick wall went off. No one was injured, though authorities said there could have been significant injuries because debris from the explosion was found some 100 feet away.
A year-long manhunt for the man suspected in the bombing ended with the man’s death more than 1,000 miles from Jacksonville.
Sandlin Matthews Smith, 46, was killed in Oklahoma after FBI and Oklahoma Highway Patrol agents followed a tip leading them to a field where they found him. Authorities saw Smith brandishing a weapon and he was shot.
Once again, the center was grateful that a tragedy was avoided.
“The Sheriff’s Office, FDLE and the FBI have clearly done a great job and we are really thankful for them. They prevented what clearly could have been a really disastrous situation,” said Mobeen Rathore, a board member at the center. “We are lucky to have law enforcement folks around us.”
Bolatete’s interest in guns is apparent in his scant Facebook posts over the years.
Intermingled among the photos of him with weapons are memes asking for prayer and touching stories that have gone viral over the years. Also on the feed was a bogus story that claimed that a woman was forced for recite the Quran while being raped.
Spencer said Bolatete was a green card holder who was renting the home on Eucalyptus Drive, but he would not go into detail about others living at the residence.
Williams and Spencer both pointed to cooperation among law enforcement agencies as a key to foiling the plan, and Rathore was grateful for their efforts as well as the support from the local inter-faith community.
“This is really a lovely community,” said Rathore. “It is heartening to live in a community where there are so many caring people. Yes we have a person who wanted to do harm, but we have a lot more people who are caring and support us.”
©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)