Dr. Shahid Hashmi remembers waking up at 2 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2017 to a call informing him that the Victoria Islamic Center, in the US state of Texas, was on fire.
(AhlulBayt News Agency) - Dr. Shahid Hashmi remembers waking up at 2 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2017 to a call informing him that the Victoria Islamic Center, in the US state of Texas, was on fire.
He got up and ran out, and drove over to the mosque.
From the witness stand, Hashmi recounted seeing smoke on his drive over. He and others who worship there watched from across the street. Hashmi said he stayed until sunrise. About a dozen or so people prayed with him there.
"Just memories, burnt Qurans," he replied when asked by an attorney what was salvaged from the fire.
Hashmi, a founder of the center and local surgeon, was the first witness to testify in the trial of Marq Vincent Perez, who is accused of setting fire to the Victoria Islamic Center.
The trial of Perez, who was indicted last year of a hate crime related to the fire, began Monday at the federal courthouse in Victoria before Judge John D. Rainey.
Perez faces three felony counts, including damage to a religious property and use of fire to commit a federal felony. He has pleaded not guilty.
Most of the morning was spent in jury selection. Potential jurors were brought back late in the afternoon, when it was announced that a final panel had been selected.
Prosecutors presented their opening statements, walking through the outline of their case, before witness testimony began. Perez's attorney Mark Di Carlo opted to reserve his opening statement for a later time.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Sharad Sushil Khandelwal, presented the US Attorney Office's statement.
Khandelwal promoted the idea that Perez was motivated by his "absolute hatred" of Muslims. He said the case is a "straightforward case of hate."
"I'll burn every m----- f----- with a raggedy towel on their head," he said, alleging Perez made the statement.
Khandelwal said in December 2016 Perez became involved with a militia group on Facebook and began forming what he called "rogue units" to operate away from the "prying eye."
Perez began recruiting people and on Jan. 15 went on a "training mission" to throw an "improvised bomb" into a car, the prosecutor continued.
Khandelwal said Perez was convinced that Muslims were planning to take over Victoria and were hiding weapons at the Victoria Islamic Center.
On Jan. 22 he said Perez and a juvenile identified as K.R. went to burglarize the mosque, entering through the back door to search for weapons. They didn't find any, but did steal a laptop and some cell phones, Khandelwal said.
He went back on Jan. 28 with K.R., but this time, Khandelwal alleged that instead of leaving, Perez set the mosque on fire.
Khandelwal said Perez returned to the scene as Victoria firefighters tried to extinguish the flames.
"Watching as this house of worship just burned to the ground," Khandelwal said at the start of his opening statements.
Khandelwal told the 14 jurists, which include two alternates, that property stolen from the mosque was located at Perez's residence and that pictures of the mosque in flames were found on his phone.
Perez was arrested in March 2017 for the alleged attempt to blow up a car with a destructive device. Two confidential informants helped connect Perez to the mosque fire.
One told authorities he was with Perez when the mosque was burglarized and the night it was set on fire, and that Perez "hated" Muslims. A second said the two had discussed the mosque on social media. Perez's attorney said at the time that the information from the informants was hearsay and shouldn't be admissible in trial.
More than $1 million has been raised on a GoFundMe to help rebuild the Victoria Islamic Center. Construction is more than 80 percent done.
If convicted, Perez could face decades in prison and up to $750,000 in fines, according to the US Department of Justice.
Perez's trial is expected to resume Tuesday with witness testimony. Hashmi was still on the stand when the court recessed Monday.