TAMPA — 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. Attorney 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.”