Turning 18 while in US Marine Corps boot camp, former Sgt. Zachary Sorrell was initially billeted to the infantry. He then served in Thailand, the Philippines, and the Middle East, where he trained foreign armies and police. He chased pirates around the Horn of Africa. And after re-enlisting in the marines, Sorrell was assigned to teach new recruits how to shoot and handle small arms.
Upon returning home after five years of service, the ex-marine planned to move to Kentucky with his girlfriend and their son. But while vacationing in Silicon Valley they fell out, and Sorrell took his son — believing that his girlfriend was manipulating their arranged visiting schedule — to Arizona to stay with his mother.
In response, his girlfriend alerted the authorities in San Mateo County that Sorrell had taken their child — and claimed that he had kidnapped the boy, despite the fact that they were in regular communication. Sheriffs in Arizona arrested Sorrell and when Californian authorities searched his trailer in Silicon Valley, they found a TEC-9 handgun, several AK47s, and "thousands of rounds" of ammunition he had stashed inside, according to prosecutors.
Charged by the San Mateo District Attorney with kidnapping, as well as felony possession of illegal firearms — guns that are legal in the states Sorrell bought them but not California — his case, which has not yet gone to trial, has recently attracted the interest of a benefactor: the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The NRA's General Counsel Robert Dowlut, himself a controversial figure once convicted of murder, wrote in a tersely worded letter that the NRA would fork over $10,000 to help defray Sorrell's legal costs.
"The NRA's decision to fund Mr. Sorrell's defense is an absolute testament to the fact that he is a law-abiding and honest citizen being persecuted not because of any intentional violation of the law," Gregory Bentley, Sorrell's attorney, wrote to VICE News. "But because of a misunderstanding of the vast disparity in gun laws, varying from state to state, which even our higher courts have struggled in their application."
Although the NRA did not return repeated phone calls and emails requesting comment for this report, it's no secret why the organization would agree to help fund Sorrell's legal defense. With a former marine up for trial on a gun charge that's not related to violence, it might be an ideal case to use as legal vehicle to challenge California's ban on assault weapons, which include the AK-47 and TEC-9.
"[For a constitutional challenge] interest groups such as the NRA need good test cases," said legal scholar Evan Lee of UC Hastings College of the Law. "The NRA isn't going to fund the legal defense of everyone out there with a gun charge. [The NRA] wants to find cases where it's pretty clear that the defendant had the weapons, and that they weren't registered."Doing so, Lee explained, ensures that any Second Amendment-based challenge of California's gun laws is more likely to succeed.
"You're also looking for sympathetic facts — that [Sorrell] honorably served the nation in the military is going to be a more sympathetic fact than a meth trafficker who's caught carrying firearms."
San Mateo's District Attorney doesn't frame the case as anything more than a straightforward criminal prosecution, and gives no ground in the face of a potential constitutional challenge. "This is a straightforward case of child abduction and gun possession charges stemming from that,"District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told VICE News. "These are matters of major concern. In our county, when dealing with illegal firearm possession we are very aggressive. We are just tough on guns in this county."
'It's very easy for the public to misconstrue events — see veterans as monsters, veterans as vulgar.'
In a rare opportunity to discuss a case pending trial with the defendant, Sorrell explained to VICE News that he purchased both the AK-47s and TEC-9 legally. Describing himself as a gun enthusiast and a gun safety expert, he said he bought both because of his extensive training and firearms expertise. "I'm cross trained in weapons from other nations, so you know what they sound like,"he said in the measured cadence of a soldier. "During my years in the marines, I became proficient in Soviet weaponry [referring to the AK-47]. In some scenarios, if you run out of ammunition, you might end up using one of your enemy's guns.'"
Sorrell also believes in owning weapons in principle, despite not pursuing a career in security. He said he encountered an ugly side of humanity, able to commit vicious, violent, and deadly acts, while serving in the marines. "When you're in those hostile environments, you see a different side of people. There are people in the world that are not good. Earth can be a crazy place."
The charges against Sorrell are somewhat typical of how soldiers'experiences manifest in behaviors once they have returned to civilian life. Every veteran who comes back from overseas has some degree of difficulty adjusting to civilian life, according to Joe Davis, public affairs director for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Soldiers who've served in wars fought in foreign countries, come back to an America that has no idea what that experience does to a person psychologically," he told VICE News.
As of 2007, about 703,000 veterans are either incarcerated (at federal, state, or county levels), or on probation and supervised release. Compared with average inmates veterans were typically, older, better educated, and more likely to be white and married — the majority of whom reported service during wartime. More than a million veterans were arrested in 2007 on a variety of charges. And veteran offenders generally were more likely to commit violent crimes compared with civilians, according to the most recently available estimates from the Justice Department.
"Veterans are often charged with violent offenses in part because of the training and experience soldiers receive,"Christopher Deutsch of Justice for Vets told VICE News. "Gun charges are common. And those are some of the many reasons why veterans courts have been established across the country —justice isn't always served by a prison sentence."
Although the operation of veterans' courts differs slightly across jurisdictions, they aim to combine the application of strict judicial oversight, a treatment program, and supervision from a probation officer in order to keep veterans out of the penal system and transitioned back into society. The majority of such courts see cases that are drug- and alcohol-related — usually some form of self-medication as a direct result of PTSD or other disorders — but such courts also handle other non-violent crimes.
Sorrell isn't eligible for veterans' court in San Mateo, according to District Attorney Wagstaffe. His gun possession and kidnapping charges saw to that, Wagstaffe said.
Bentley, Sorrell's attorney, vigorously disagrees with the county's prosecution strategy, expressing disappointment in the inflexible approach toward justice. "It's a disgrace… Although the prosecution has the discretion to allow Mr. Sorrell to put this mistake behind him by pleading to a charge that will expunged from his record after three years of probation, they will settle for no less that two felony convictions, one of which will prevent him from obtaining employment."
Sorrell himself is frustrated by the county's approach to what he believes is a dispute between him and his ex-girlfriend that hasgot out of hand. And he's concerned about the picture the prosecution is painting. "It's very easy for the public to misconstrue events — see veterans as monsters, veterans as vulgar. The Marine Corps does a great of training people to go to war, but not dealing with civilian life. You're never really comfortable."
Sorrell is set to stand trial in San Mateo county court in mid-January.
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