By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – A soldier who contacted the Army posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel to make ransom demands on himself was sentenced to three years in prison Friday afternoon.
James Andrew Gonzalez, a soldier in Able Troop, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, went missing July 11 after visiting family in Robstown, according to an Associated Press report.
Fort Hood officials announced he was arrested July 22 in Laredo by law enforcement officials after an effort that involved several agencies, including the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and the FBI. The 24-year-old was brought back to Central Texas the next day and placed in Bell County Jail, where he awaited Friday's trial.
Military Judge Col. Gregory Gross sentenced Gonzalez, a private first class at the time of the incident, to a reduction to the rank of private, total forfeiture of pay and allowances, a dishonorable discharge and five years in jail. In exchange for a guilty plea, a three-year sentence was provided in a pre-trial agreement, which stated that once Gross' decision was made, Gonzalez would receive the smallest sentence. Prosecutors asked for six years during the trial.
Army officials first learned of the plot when Gonzalez contacted Pfc. Michael Luna, a fellow Able Troop soldier. Gonzalez, feigning as a drug cartel representative, called and text messaged Luna from his cell phone, demanding $100,000 and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border.
Luna was considered a suspect, but later cleared after a series of interviews and passing a polygraph test, said David Guptill, a Fort Hood CID special agent.
Gonzalez was granted leave time for a few days in early July to attend court appearances outside Central Texas. Evidence presented Friday showed that Gonzalez did not intend to return to Fort Hood and traveled in and out of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, thinking the Army could not pursue him because American officials didn't have jurisdiction there. He thought the Army would stop looking for him.
"I did not want to be found," Gonzalez stated in documents read in court.
Drug-related kidnappings are not rare in the border town, said Andrew Del Valle, a FBI special agent in Laredo, and investigators dropped everything for what they knew could be a time-sensitive situation. Border violence in Laredo is very real and affects a lot of people, said Matthew Womble, another special agent.
"It's unfortunate that people exploit that," he added.
Gonzalez's supposed kidnapping was atypical, Del Valle said, because the demands were political in nature and drug cartels typically won't target agents, law enforcement officials or military personnel.
Gonzalez's family was at Fort Hood for his trial. His mother testified during the sentence hearing and said her son's behavior was sparked by the Dec. 24, 2007, death of his father.
In a statement written by Gonzalez and read aloud by his lawyer, Capt. Jocelyn Stewart, expressed remorse for his "web of lies and deceit," which brought shame to his father's memory and his family's name.
He acted like a child, Gonzalez said, thinking the world revolved around him and deceived himself into believing he was the one wronged.
Stewart said her client showed a "severe lack of maturity," but committed no violent crimes.
"He doesn't like who he is," she said during her closing argument.
"Pfc. Gonzalez has a problem telling the truth. He has a problem with his word."
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547.
The charges against Gonazalez
James Andrew Gonzalez was convicted on a series of charges from incidents between November 2008 to July 2009. They were:
two counts of failure to report for duty
one count of making a false official statement
three counts of impersonating a commissioned officer
two counts of wearing a Ranger tab and Special Forces tab wrongfully and without authority
one count of desertion
one count of violation of a lawful general order by travelling to Mexico without approval
one count of demanding ransom for a kidnapped person
one count of impeding a criminal investigation
During February court appearances two weeks apart in Corpus Christi on unrelated charges, Gonzalez appeared in uniform wearing a lieutenant rank and later a captain rank. He also wore Ranger and Special Forces on his Class A and Army Combat Uniforms.
Gonzalez, an automated logistical specialist, began his Army service in April 2008. He was set to serve a four-year enlistment, and was assigned to the regiment in September 2008.