TAMPA — Once he was lauded as a hero who fought valiantly for his country overseas. Now Gabriel Brown is facing the possibility of decades in federal prison for a series of business robberies in which he used military flash grenades, creating the excitement he craved at home.
A former Special Forces Green Beret, Brown won a Bronze Star for “exceptionally meritorious service” as a weapons sergeant in Afghanistan.
He saw friends killed in combat; he killed others, at least once under orders, he says, when he wasn’t so sure the man posed a threat. He saw civilians, including children, maimed and killed.
He says he still has nightmares about what happened.
When he left the military, Brown went to work for the contractor, Blackwater, guarding CIA personnel in Afghanistan, where he again was in danger and fighting against threats seen and unseen.
He became, he says, an adrenaline junkie.
He repeatedly cheated on his then-wife and began to gamble more than he could afford to lose.
Back home in Tampa, he tried to channel the need for excitement into a career as a nurse. But when he flunked a class, he lost his veteran’s benefits and descended into debt.
So when a friend suggested they start committing armed robberies, Brown provided the flash grenades they used. He donned a motorcycle helmet and flashed a derringer, demanding money at a bank and a cell phone store. The pair committed a series of robberies in Hillsborough and Polk counties from December 2012 to February 2013. Brown admitted being involved in four armed robberies, including the February heist of a Metro PCS store in Seffner and a TD Bank in Auburndale.
Brown, 34, has pleaded guilty to federal firearm charges and faces a mandatory minimum of 32 years in federal prison and up to life when he is sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tampa. His codefendant, Robert McChristian, is serving 30 years.
Brown could avoid the mandatory minimum because of his cooperation on another case, and his lawyer is asking a judge for mercy in recognition of his service to the country and for what the attorney says is Brown’s mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Gabriel Brown served the United States during a time of war,” said lawyer Ronald Manto in a court filing. “He excelled as a soldier. He experienced the horrors of war and it has greatly affected him. If there is any man that deserves a second chance, it is Gabriel Brown. He deserves to be treated differently than other defendants that come before the court – not only because of his military service, but because of what this country exposed him to. This government needs to take responsibility for Gabriel Brown and rehabilitate him.”
In a letter to one of the store owners he robbed, Brown expressed how “deeply sorry” and “heartbroken” he is for what he’s done. “I have been a soldier in the United States Army for over ten years, also serving as a Green Beret for over four of those years,” he wrote. “During this time I developed, what I am now realizing, an addiction to adrenaline. At the time I robbed you I was at the most depressed state in my life, I have been out of the combat scene for just under three years before the robbery and I have spent those three years trying to re-adjust my life to survive in this ‘normal society.’ It was extremely hard for me to find a way to go from being in highly threatening situations, risking my life everyday to sitting at home watching TV alone.”
Brown’s lawyer also filed with the court three essays written by Brown on his time in Special Forces, his job with Blackwater and his hope for his future.
Describing the first time he killed someone, Brown wrote about a mission in Afghanistan: “As I looked through my scope, I established a target and before I could think twice I pulled the trigger and he went down. Immediately after that there was a second target and I aimed and fired again.”
He wrote about an incident where his caravan was ambushed by the Taliban with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. “I had seen the flashes of their muzzles as they were trying to kill us,” he wrote. When they got away, they realized one of their vehicles had been left behind. Brown and the crew in his Humvee had to go back under fire to rescue the men.
They searched a village and found a man they had been looking for: “From my sniper position, I acquired two targets, which were Taliban forces, one with an RPG and another was firing an AK-47 at our location. I was able to get clean shots and kill both men.
“Later I acquired another target; it was a man that stepped out of his house with an AK-47 slung behind his back. I was told that anyone carrying a weapon or moving towards a weapon was considered a threat. I was ordered to kill the man even though to me it seemed as if he was just ordinary guy coming out of his house. It was a difficult moment in my career as a sniper because in my opinion he was not a threat. It is not easy to kill people, and if you have to kill someone who you suspect is innocent just because you are ordered to do so, it is even worse. I still have nightmares about the man that I killed.”
Brown got out of the Army in 2007, and started working as a computer technician for a high school in New York. But he hated the job and craved excitement. So he went to work for Blackwater protecting CIA spies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While there, he was in two car wrecks, including one where the car slid off a cliff.
“In Peshawar,” he wrote, “I routinely found myself in very dangerous situations. I have been in situations where guns have been drawn down on me. I was also in the Consulate when it was attacked.... Our house was constantly a target to be bombed and we slept on eggshells at night.
“One of my responsibilities was to search the assets when we picked them up or as they arrived to the venue. This is a very tense moment as I have had friends who have been blown up by assets wearing suicide vests. On one occasion in Khost, Afghanistan, an asset deployed a suicide vest and killed four officers and two protective agents who were my friends.”
While he was in Pakistan, he said, his personal life was also in turmoil. He wrote that he was unaware that a woman in Arkansas had gone to court seeking child support for a child that was later proven through DNA not to be his. But because he wasn’t there to oppose the court order, his debts from it piled up until he was unable to renew his passport and lost his Blackwater job.
Back in Tampa, he began to work as a customer service representative while he attended nursing school. But when he failed a course and lost his veteran’s benefits, he lost his car and was served with an eviction notice, he wrote.
He had befriended McChristian, and the two smoked marijuana together. In December 2012, McChristian began suggesting they commit armed robberies, Brown wrote. “He asked me to do it with him numerous times and I said no. I was not and I am not a criminal. However, in January everything came crashing down on me. After I lost my Veterans’ Association money, failed school, had eviction notices, I broke down and consented. I do not remember making the decision and I do not understand why or how I did it. I was depressed and suicidal. I was lost. “
The robberies, he said, gave him the same kind of adrenaline rush he felt in war zones. Although he used flash grenades in the heists, he didn’t want to terrorize anyone or harm anyone physically, he said.
Now, he wrote, he is struggling to understand what he did and how to help other people to try to make up for it.
“Even if I was to get out of here tomorrow, I am still going to live the rest of my life in shame,” he wrote. “There is no amount of prison time that could have been a greater punishment than knowing that I have shamed my family, friends and children.”