Commitment To Veterans
- War hero spared in sentencing for armed robberies
- Judge orders Navy SEAL to change out of uniform during criminal trial
- Military sniper links his string of armed robberies to PTSD
War hero spared in sentencing for armed robberies
By Elaine Silvestrini | Published: January 23, 2014
Saying it was one of the toughest cases he’s ever had, a federal judge Thursday sentenced a decorated Special Forces veteran to just five years in federal prison for a string of armed robberies – decades less than the defendant could have received under mandatory sentencing laws.
Gabriel Brown participated in a spree of 10 armed robberies from December 2012 to February 2013, using both a gun and military-style flash grenades, in part, he said, to recapture the adrenaline rush he craved after years serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, first as a Green Beret and later as a military contractor guarding CIA spies.
For his service to the country, Brown was awarded numerous medals, including a Bronze Star with a Valor designation for saving two other soldiers’ lives.
And U.S. District Judge James Moody gave him something else – a prison sentence that his lawyer Jose Baez said could result in his freedom in as little as three years, with credits.
After his release, he is to serve five years of probation, which will include inpatient treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs for drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As Moody announced his sentence, Brown’s former wife, Maria Suarez, began to weep, repeatedly saying, “Thank you, God!” Brown also collapsed in tears of relief.
The federal firearms charges Brown pleaded guilty to carried a mandatory minimum of 32 years and up to life behind bars. Because of Brown’s extensive cooperation in this and another case, he was released from the mandatory minimum, Assistant U.S. Lawyer Matthew Mueller recommended 17 1/2 years in prison. Brown’s co-defendant, Robert McChristian, is serving 30 years.
“There are soldiers, and there are elite soldiers who have extraordinary stories, and this man is one of them,” Baez said, calling Brown “a man who has no other training other than how to kill.”
Baez calculated that 82 percent of Brown’s adult life has been spent serving his country. “If there’s anyone who deserves a second chance,” he said, “it’s this man.”
“This is certainly one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever had to fashion a sentence for,” Moody said.” The crimes committed in this case were extremely dangerous and violent, and at the same time, completely out of character for this defendant.”
Brown apologized to his victims, his family and his friends. Choking up, he added, “I would also like to apologize to my country. I love my country very much. I’m just very, very sorry for my actions.”
The defense put forth an elaborate multimedia presentation, including photographs of Brown as a child, as a soldier and military contractor, as well as audio of a drill sergeant urging recruits to kill.
In addition, the court was given essays by Brown about his time as a military sniper and as a contractor, as well as his hopes for his family and future.
“I have lost a lot of good friends to wars,” Brown wrote. “It hurts a lot and I feel guilty. I often have nightmares about the war and dreams of saving my buddies’ lives. War is a terrible thing. It’s only cool and a good idea to those who have never been to war or to those who have never lost a friend or family member in a war. I have had to carry my friend’s caskets and load them on an airplane to be sent back to their families. That is a lot harder than being in a gunfight for your life.”
In his last robbery the morning of Feb. 5, Brown calmly walked into a TD Bank in Auburndale wearing a surgical mask, a dark brown, hooded sweatshirt, gloves and blue jeans.
He yelled at everyone to get on the ground and gave tellers two small bags, ordering them to fill the bags with money. No dye packs, he warned, or he would come back.
After he got the bags filled with money, he threw a smoke grenade in the bank lobby and ran out the front door.
Mueller, the prosecutor, told Moody the criminal conduct was “very serious … We are all, a variety of people, are fortunate that no one was hurt during this spree of crimes,” he said.”
Psychologist Scot Machlus testified Brown suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. As part of that, he has engaged in reckless, self-destructive behavior, including two suicide attempts. He said Brown went to work for the contractor Blackwater over the objections of his wife because he needed to repeat his combat experiences and escape the boredom of a school job he had taken after his military service.
“Even when he came back home, he still needed that adrenaline rush,” Machlus said. So Brown began to gamble online, and after he moved to Tampa in 2008, he started going to the Hard Rock Casino, making reckless bets, jeopardizing his financial future.
He started going to school full-time for nursing and working full-time as an emergency room technician. Between school and the work and long commutes, he had very little sleep and was overwhelmed, Machlus said. The psychologist said the PTSD and depression contributed to Brown’s crimes.
Suarez, Brown’s former wife, told Moody that Brown “has a big heart and loves his children very much.” She said the country owes Brown for his service. “We’re all here in this room because of people like Gabriel,” she said.
He can be, she added, a positive role model if allowed to talk to others about the need to get treatment for their PTSD so they don’t make his mistakes.
The robberies were “truly a cry for help,” Baez told Moody. Alluding to the soldier’s pledge to leave no one behind, the lawyer added, “We ask that we not leave Gabriel Brown behind. There has got to be something that can be done.”
| back to top |
Judge orders Navy SEAL to change out of uniform during criminal trial
July 31, 2014
A now former Navy SEAL told Eyewitness News he feels he was unfairly treated during his criminal trial in Orange County when he was forced to change out of his military uniform.
John Cruz Alicea said becoming a Navy SEAL was one of the proudest days of his life.
“Honestly, it meant the world to me,” Alicea said.
But everything changed for Alicea in December 2013 when he became involved in a confrontation with Orange County deputies at downtown Disney. Cellphone video captured Alicea’s takedown by deputies, who said he was intoxicated and had tried to attack them.
Alicea denied that and claimed it was the opposite that actually happened. He was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting with violence.
“He just pushed me, shoved me and tried to choke me, and slammed me on to the ground,” Alicea said.
When the 24-year-old, who was represented by the Baez Law Firm, showed up for his trial at the Orange County Courthouse in uniform, prosecutors filed a motion to keep his military connection out of the trial. Judge Jennifer Davis granted the motion and ordered Alicea to change into spare clothes provided by the public defender’s office.
“It felt like getting stabbed,” Alicea said.
Despite not being able to wear his uniform, Alicea was eventually acquitted of all his charges, but he was administratively discharged from the military under honorable conditions.
He told Eyewitness News he hopes to file a lawsuit against the deputies who arrested him.
| back to top |
Military sniper links his string of armed robberies to PTSD
By David Zucchino | February 3, 2014
After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gabriel Brown came home to an emptier life in Florida. At his sentencing for a two-week crime spree, he pleaded for clemency.
As an Army sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gabriel Brown craved danger. Combat satisfied what he called his “adrenaline addiction.”
When he returned home to Florida, nothing in civilian life provided the sense of invincibility that made combat so alluring and vital. The sniper was now a nursing student. There was a hole in his life, but he found a way to fill it: robbing banks.
He robbed with a military flair. On Feb. 5, 2013, Brown whipped out a gun and tossed an M83 military smoke grenade during a robbery of a TD Bank branch in Auburndale, Fla., that netted $19,000. It was his final crime in a two-week string of robberies that targeted banks, a cellphone store and an insurance company.
Brown was arrested the next day on federal charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 32 years to life. He quickly confessed.
“It was extremely hard for me to find a way to go from being in highly threatening situations, risking my life every day, to sitting at home watching TV alone,” he wrote later. “The adrenaline I got from committing robberies was some kind of weird addiction I so desperately needed to get myself out of this depressive state I was in.”
Like thousands of other combat veterans, Brown was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And like thousands of PTSD veterans seeking reduced sentences for crimes, he blamed the condition, in part, for his actions.
Increasingly, veterans across the U.S. have cited stress related to their combat experience as the reason for civilian misdeeds, a tactic that often reduces or even eliminates sentences for minor crimes, especially in special veterans’ courts.
“It’s a growing trend, with the stigma of PTSD largely eliminated and the condition more widely understood,” said David Frakt, a law professor and Air Force Reserve military legal officer.
But blaming PTSD for serious felonies rarely succeeds, even for elite soldiers like Brown, 34, a decorated Green Beret with no previous criminal record. Courts are aware that most PTSD veterans manage not to commit serious crimes, said Victor Hansen, a law professor and former Army legal officer.
The result of Brown’s plea for clemency was different — so different that Hansen and other legal experts could recall no case like it.
In a federal courtroom in downtown Tampa last month, Brown faced sentencing after pleading guilty and testifying against a fellow veteran, Robert McChristian, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He cut a sympathetic figure: a powerfully built war hero with a shaved head, military bearing, exemplary combat record and a powerful sense of remorse.
In the gallery was Maria Suarez, his ex-wife and mother of their two children, who divorced him after he signed up as a private security officer for CIA operatives in Pakistan when he left the Army. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Beside Suarez was Brown’s mother, a small woman fighting to hold back tears, and his stepfather, a thin, mustachioed Arkansas truck driver.
Brown’s family believed PTSD drove him to crime after contributing to his alcohol and drug abuse, depression, nightmares and compulsive gambling. He wouldn’t have been the first: A 2012 survey of 1,400 veterans diagnosed with PTSD found that 23% committed crimes, mostly nonviolent, after deployment, according to the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Family members said Brown’s personality changed as he struggled to cope with civilian life after 10 years in the Army and four more in Pakistan.
“That wasn’t my son — my baby boy. He was distant and angry and threw fits,” said his mother, Debby Barrack, who signed for Brown to join the Army at 17.
“He’d never done anything like that, not my little brother. He’s always been such a good man and good father,” said his sister, Sandra.
Brown’s ex-wife wept as she told the judge how Brown drove their children 16 hours to Arkansas every Christmas to visit his parents. Brown is their children’s “superhero,” she said; his criminal life was “completely out of character for him.” He had refused previous treatment for his combat stress, she said, because “this was like a sign of weakness and he wanted to be the brave hero he was paid to be.”
Brown had seemed to drag home a troubled life from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He suffered brain trauma from being knocked unconscious by a 50-caliber gun barrel in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. He gambled away $48,000 in a single night. Twice, he tried to commit suicide by taking Xanax or sleeping pills.
While in prison awaiting trial, Brown wrote letters of apology to every person he robbed, though no one had been injured.
“I want you to understand how sorry I am that I scared you,” he wrote.
| back to top |