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Pre-service crimes often go uncited when vets claim PTSD

Lance Cpl. Roel Briones in his booking photo from the Kings County Sheriff Department.
Lance Cpl. Roel Briones in his booking photo from the Kings County Sheriff Department. Kings County Sheriff's Department

Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones saw the horrors of the Iraq war firsthand, including the site where his fellow Marines allegedly killed 24 women, children and other civilians at Haditha.

So when he returned to Kings County, Calif., got drunk and drove a stolen pickup into someone’s living room, family and friends blamed the psychological effects of war, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

His crime, like others committed by returning war veterans, caught the attention — and sympathies — of lawmakers and veterans groups. California passed legislation in 2006, and at least four other states have drafted or considered laws to empower judges to send these veterans to treatment in lieu of prison because their crimes may be the byproduct of war.

But a yearlong examination found that veterans sometimes had criminal records and other questionable backgrounds before enlistment, and experts said that since crime is not a typical symptom of PTSD, their subsequent crimes more likely were a product of their backgrounds than of the war.

"It's an excuse, the way I see it," said Catherine Casey, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed in 2006 by another former California-based Marine driving drunk in Minnesota. "To use it as a crutch or an excuse for our behavior is, as far as I'm concerned, unacceptable."

Casey, a police investigator who does background checks for the Minneapolis Police Department, was angry not only because her daughter died, but also because she learned the man who killed her had a history that included alcohol offenses before he joined the military.

The public for decades has recognized that war can cause psychological problems, but it was the post-Vietnam era that spawned a large number of studies into what became known as PTSD.

With the services accepting a growing number of recruits with criminal backgrounds, experts said they are more likely to suffer PTSD and more likely to respond to stress by committing crimes.

"If these individuals who because of their past histories and their genetics are prone to be violent and have been violent in the past, stress can exacerbate that behavior," said Dr. Elisabeth Binder, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta who has recently completed a PTSD study.

PROSECUTING A HERO

Lance Cpl. Briones’ criminal history in the southern San Joaquin Valley began long before he experienced the stress of a combat zone, and that criminal history is directly connected to his ending up in Iraq.

"He wasn’' a person who I would classify as a real upstanding citizen, before or during the military," said Kings County Deputy District Attorney Adam Nelson.

Briones was arrested on felony drug charges on July 20, 2003, after police in Hanford, Calif., received complaints about intoxicated people at a convenience store. Officers found seven baggies in Briones' pockets that they reported contained marijuana and money, an indication he had been selling drugs, according to Nelson.

Briones was "very intoxicated," the police report says, and he "was out of control at the jail and had to be restrained several times to keep him from hurting himself or others."

Later, Nelson said, "his attorney contacted our office and said the guy wants to go into the military. At the time, we said that would probably be the best thing for him."

The office agreed to drop charges if Briones enlisted, but Nelson now believes that agreement was a mistake.

Shortly before he deployed to Iraq in 2005, Briones was charged with drunken driving in Orange County, not far from the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years informal probation.

In 2006, the Marine Corps charged Briones with stealing nearly $4,000 in night-vision goggles and binoculars in Iraq and with trying to send two 9mm pistols in the mail. The Marines also accused Briones of a rape at Camp Pendleton.

That same year, he came home on leave to Kings County, stole a pickup and drove it into a living room, with a blood-alcohol level nearly double the legal limit.

A police report described Briones' behavior in the jail as "combative," similar to his behavior in jail before he joined the military.

Still, his war experiences were quickly blamed.

"My boss was getting crank calls at his house, swearing at him because he's prosecuting this hero," Nelson said.

Briones faced a maximum sentence of three years and eight months for vehicle theft, DUI and vandalism, but he pleaded guilty only to vandalism and received a two-year sentence. All the military charges were withdrawn shortly after the accident.

Nelson said a psychiatric evaluation found that Briones "was suffering from stress, but that it was not an excuse for what he did."

‘SO HE SOLD DRUGS’

Because of links to the Haditha killings, the Briones case made headlines worldwide as the chairwoman of the California Assembly's Veterans Affairs Committee was pushing fellow lawmakers to offer veterans treatment in lieu of prison.

"I brought (Briones) up, I remember, during the committee," said Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, who is from Hanford, in Kings County. "I didn’t know the specifics of the case to say he had PTSD, but I said … you’ve got to believe that (the war) had to have had some kind of impact."

Told that Briones had been arrested on felony drug sale charges prior to his service, Parra said, "Yeah, so he sold drugs. But again, he went to war, saw horrific crimes being committed. Did that time and experience in Iraq affect him when he got back?"

The first version of the bill would have mandated that judges divert veterans diagnosed with PTSD to treatment. The governor vetoed it.

"The trauma of war is unfortunate, but justice for crime victims and the safety of the public must remain a paramount concern of the criminal justice system," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his veto message.

The version signed by Schwarzenegger in September 2006 empowers California judges to bypass sentencing guidelines and choose between treatment or jail for veterans convicted of any crime.

‘IT SURPRISES ME’

The media and the public have focused most of their attention on the war records of returning veterans who commit crimes, not their criminal records.

Master Sgt. Michael Ramsey was one of more than 100 veterans identified in a New York Times series linking crimes by veterans to post-traumatic stress.

But Ramsey's criminal history began in his hometown of Milwaukee long before he joined the Army and long before he experienced the stress of a war zone.

Thirteen days after his 17th birthday, in May 1999, Ramsey was accused by Milwaukee police of threatening to "shoot and kill" someone. He was ordered to court on a charge of disorderly conduct, but failed to appear.

Two days later, Ramsey was accused of stealing a Toyota and driving it to school, resulting in a six-month jail sentence, which was stayed, and a two-year probation term. Six months after his sentencing, Milwaukee police restrained Ramsey at Harold S. Vincent High School as he shouted profanities and tried to physically confront a school official, who had accused him of gambling.

Ramsey was charged with disorderly conduct and again missed a court appearance, prompting the court to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Within four months, Ramsey was accused of shoplifting, and two months later, police records show, undercover Milwaukee police purchased drugs from Ramsey's roommate at their residence. Ramsey, who was on probation at the time, was arrested there on outstanding warrants.

On Valentine's Day in 2002, Ramsey was arrested on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon after he tried to enter Federal Plaza in Milwaukee with a pellet pistol in his backpack.

Within four months, he went in to the Army and subsequently deployed to Iraq.

"He got into the service with that kind of record?" asked Deputy Inspector Edward Bailey of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. "It surprises me not as a law enforcement officer. It surprises me as a prior-service Army officer."

In November 2005, Ramsey and two other soldiers were drinking heavily, violating a military prohibition on consuming alcohol in Iraq. The two other soldiers began to argue, according to Ramsey, and one of them, Spc. Chris Rolan, shot and killed Pvt. Dylan Paytas.

Ramsey's account of what happened that night was the only version of events provided at Rolan's court-martial, since Rolan didn't testify. Rolan was convicted of unpremeditated murder, and Ramsey was discharged for what the military described as "other-than-honorable" reasons.

In August 2006, after Ramsey returned from Iraq, he told the FBI that he had helped lure Columbus, Ga., cabdriver Jack Horne to a remote area, where an accomplice shot Horne in the head and neck. An FBI agent's affidavit says Ramsey then helped drag Horne's body off the road and later used Horne's ATM card to withdraw money.

Ramsey helped lead law enforcement officers in Georgia to the spot where the cabdriver was robbed. Horne's body was found there about 20 feet off the road.

Stephen Glassroth, who oversees the federal public defender's office representing Ramsey, said it's premature to discuss whether post-traumatic stress will be used as a defense.

"That will come out in opening statements," Glassroth said.

NOT BLAMING WAR

Not all military personnel who commit civilian crimes ever experienced war firsthand, and even some of the ones who served in a war zone have chosen not to blame war-related stress.

Ian Bowers served in Iraq for about two months, and a military spokeswoman said he likely didn't see combat. When he was accused in a fatal drunken driving accident in Madison, Wis., his attorney did not use the war as a excuse for the crime, although his service was mentioned during his sentencing hearing.

"I don't know that Iraq had much of anything to do with this," said attorney Bill Ginsberg. "This is your run-of-the-mill drunk driving."

Still, an editorial in the local Madison newspaper portrayed Bowers as among a group of veterans who "have had no problems with their lives or the law before their war service," and Bowers also was included in the New York Times series linking crimes by veterans to PTSD.

In 2004, when Bowers was 17, he was charged with theft after officers reportedly found him near a Madison shopping area in a pair of stolen $70 boots and two pairs of jeans, one with a sales tag still on it. He pleaded no contest to stealing the boots, but police could not determine where the pants had come from.

One month later, Bowers' mother complained to deputies that her sons were smoking marijuana and she had found stolen property in her house, including BB guns. Six months later, the mother again called authorities, saying Bowers had confronted her after she found him with another boy who had been smoking marijuana.

"She was extremely disturbed and frightened by the behavior," a sheriff's report says, adding that Bowers' mother feared he "wanted to physically harm her."

Bowers pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge in the second incident and paid a $243 fine.

In February 2006, weeks after pleading guilty to speeding more then 20 mph over a posted limit, Bowers enlisted in the Army.

On leave at Christmas that year, Bowers was driving a 2002 Chevy Impala when it collided with another vehicle, leaving two dead and two injured.

Bowers pleaded no contest to two counts of homicide and one of injury by intoxicated use of vehicle, and in January of this year he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

‘PEOPLE NEED TO BE PUNISHED’

As word of the California law spread, Assemblywoman Parra's office fielded calls from lawmakers in other states, including New York, Montana and Minnesota.

Minnesota tried to take the California law further, proposing that judges be empowered to divert veterans to treatment even before their criminal cases were decided.

"Presumably if you get treatment and everything is fine, then that stay becomes permanent," said Hennepin County, Minn., prosecutor Pat Diamond. "You walk away without anything on your record."

"It was a route that we thought wasn't appropriate."

Opposition from prosecutors and victims advocates led Minnesota lawmakers to rewrite the law. A version similar to the California bill became law in May, making Minnesota the second state to pass such legislation.

Minnesota attorney Brockton Hunter wrote the new bill, and his inspiration was a client, former California-based Marine Anthony Joseph Klecker, who also entered the military with a troubled past.

Klecker was expelled from Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul for carrying a knife to school, Hunter said. Soon after graduating from another high school, he learned his girlfriend was pregnant.

"He worked several jobs, various stuff, low-level, hourly wage jobs," Hunter said. "He was trying to find direction in his life, and he was trying to find a career to support his new family."

During high school and after graduation, Klecker collected several traffic citations, was cited for underage drinking and — he admitted to a probation officer — used marijuana periodically. Days before he joined the Marine Corps in November 2000, he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, registering a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.10 percent, but the charge was reduced to careless driving.

Klecker's Marine unit, based near San Diego, was among the first to deploy for Iraq, and the unit engaged hostile forces several times, according to his attorney and court records. In one incident that Hunter said significantly contributed to his client's PTSD, Klecker fired a machine gun into a civilian van that moved toward him despite warning shots.

"He never did find out if he killed anyone innocent," says a memorandum that Hunter filed in court to support his plea for treatment instead of prison. "This experience has probably been the hardest one for Tony to live with."

In the months following his discharge from the Marines in late 2004, Klecker joined the Minnesota National Guard. Back home, his drinking led to at least two arrests for barroom altercations, one of them a felony arrest for terrorist threats that resulted in an acquittal.

Hunter said he met Klecker when he represented him for one of the assault cases, and he called Klecker's behavior "classic PTSD." The two bonded, Hunter said, as Klecker's problems continued.

On the night of Oct. 27, 2006, while on probation for one of the other assault cases, Klecker drank shots for hours at a St. Paul bar. Early the next morning, the car he was driving rammed into a concrete freeway barrier, knocking it into the opposing lane. Sixteen-year-old Deanna Casey, driving home from a late shift at a McDonald's, smashed into the barrier, then collided with the cab of a semi-truck that hit the same barrier and flipped over.

PTSD became the centerpiece of Hunter's plea for special treatment.

The New York Times series cited Klecker, too, saying that he saw "fierce combat in Iraq and struggled with nightmares and rage," but rather than seek treatment for PTSD, it said, he "tried to blunt his symptoms with heavy alcohol use." A subsequent Times story, published just last week, continued to depict Klecker as a victim of PTSD but mentioned part of his pre-military background.

At the time of the fatal accident, Deanna Casey was dealing with her own problems. She had been sexually assaulted by her uncle, who had been sentenced four months earlier. Like Klecker, the uncle, a Minnesota state trooper, blamed PTSD, caused by his job.

"My daughter was assaulted on Christmas Eve 2004," Catherine Casey said. Deanna had trouble sleeping in a dark room after the assault, she said, adding that "if anyone was suffering from PTSD it was her."

Klecker’s probation officer recommended 57 months, but the judge, apparently moved by Klecker's war record, sentenced him to treatment, community service, probation and, in effect, time served.

His rehabilitation was short-lived.

Klecker's probation was revoked following two altercations at a veterans treatment facility, where he also was accused of carrying a knife. This time, the judge sentenced him to four years, but he could be eligible for release in fewer than 18 months.

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