Posted on: Thursday, December 18, 2008
Army backed domestic-violence felon
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
In the Hawai’i Army National Guard, a felony conviction usually is enough to get a citizen soldier kicked out of the military.
But when Guard member Ernie Gomez was convicted of a felony in 2005 for terrorizing his wife with a semiautomatic weapon, his military career was far from derailed.
Free on bail, the convicted domestic-violence felon was able to transfer from the Guard to the Army Reserve, get mobilized to active duty status in New Jersey and start an Army job that required a “secret” security clearance to train war-bound troops.
Gomez even was able to enroll in and complete a military police training course while a felon.
And as the soldier pursued an appeal and pardon of his domestic violence conviction, some of his former and then-current military colleagues, including a lieutenant colonel and captain, urged the Hawai’i courts and Gov. Linda Lingle to keep him out of prison and on the job. They cited his exemplary record of serving his country, his dedication to his family and his lack of a criminal record – except for the domestic violence felony.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a command weigh in on behalf of a soldier like this,” said Circuit Judge Michael Town at one court hearing.
Town presided over Gomez’s trial and granted his motions to remain free on bail while he pursued the appeal and pardon.
After the appeal was rejected in December 2007 and Lingle denied the pardon request in August, Town ordered the soldier to begin serving his five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Until then, Gomez had been free for more than three years following his conviction. For much of that time, he was working for the Army.
Critics say the Gomez case illustrates the military’s tendency to protect domestic abusers who hold jobs considered important by their supervisors.
“This certainly cements our concerns,” said Annelle Amaral, an advocate for battered women. “It’s extremely disturbing to think the military would defend someone convicted of violent, criminal behavior.”
Gomez could not be reached for comment, and the public defender who handled his appeal did not return calls from the newspaper.
But a Georgia-based Reserve spokeswoman said Gomez should not have been able to join the Reserve with a felony conviction and an investigation is under way to find out how the system allowed that to happen.
“Right now, we’re trying to investigate where it broke down,” said Maj. Claudia Jefferson.
If Gomez had been dishonorably discharged from the Guard because of his conviction, the action would have been flagged in a records check when he signed up for the Reserve and would have prevented him from joining, Jefferson said.
But nothing in his record at the time raised a red flag, she added, and no security background check was done because the one he had from the Guard still was current.
A Guard spokesman confirmed that Gomez transferred from the Guard to the Army Reserve in January 2006. But he said he couldn’t disclose details of Gomez’s case, citing privacy regulations.
A jury in February 2005 found Gomez guilty of using a semiautomatic handgun eight months earlier to terrorize his then-wife at their ‘Ewa Beach home. At the time, their 2-year-old daughter was nearby, screaming and crying. Gomez also was convicted of abuse for striking his wife.
Hawai’i law requires that anyone who uses a semiautomatic during the commission of a felony receive the mandatory five-year minimum term.
The crime happened just days before Gomez was to graduate from his Honolulu Police Department recruit class. He later quit the program.
At the time, Gomez also was a member of the Hawai’i Army National Guard, according to the employment history he provided with his pardon application. On Dec. 8, 2005, the soldier received his mandatory sentence.
More than a month later and almost a year after he was found guilty of terroristic threatening and abuse, Gomez transferred to the Reserve. He was ordered to active duty about a year later, assigned to Fort Dix, N.J., court records show.
Despite his felony record, Gomez was allowed to enroll in a “military police reclassification course” at Fort Polk, La., and in July 2007 he received his diploma, graduating in the top 20 percent of his class.
He also obtained a “secret” clearance required for his job at Fort Dix, Gomez said in a letter to Town. It was not clear from the letter when the clearance was obtained and whether it allowed him to handle sensitive military information.
But Jefferson said Gomez already had the “secret” clearance when he joined the Reserve, having obtained it while he was in the Guard.
As Gomez, then a sergeant first class, pursued his appeal and pardon, friends and colleagues wrote to Town and Lingle on the soldier’s behalf.
“SFC Gomez has been with our organization for the last several months and has been a major part of the success we are having in preparing soldiers for combat,” Lt. Col. William Wall, Reserve commander of Gomez’s New Jersey battalion, wrote in an undated letter to Town. “It would be a tremendous loss to our unit if he had to leave now.”
Wall also was a New Jersey detective and said he understood the seriousness of the domestic abuse charges. “Domestic violence will not be tolerated within my battalion and SFC Gomez will pay his debt to society,” Wall wrote.
The Reserve officer told the court he was willing to have “the entire chain of command” support efforts to keep Gomez on the job “only because SFC Gomez is a fine and outstanding NCO who has been proving his experience to soldiers as they prepare to deploy to theatre.”
Wall did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But even though the letter appears to have been written well after Gomez’s conviction, Wall did not know he had been convicted, Jefferson said.
His supervisor at Fort Dix, however, was well aware of Gomez’s conviction and still urged Lingle to pardon him.
“I can honestly affirm that SFC Gomez is one of the best soldiers and noncommission officers I have ever served with or have commanded,” wrote Capt. Javier Cortez-Perez in an October 2007 letter accompanying Gomez’s pardon application.
Cortez-Perez said he had been Gomez’s supervisor for the past 10 months and “his character and personal commitment to accomplishment of the mission and to the nation (are) unparalleled.”
Also in the pardon packet was a letter from John R. Penebacker, a retired Guard colonel who was Gomez’s commanding officer for about three years. He urged Lingle to grant the pardon.
“I know that for Mr. Gomez, time has provided opportunity for soul-searching, self-reflection and remorse,” Penebacker wrote in October 2007.
In felony cases, military law gives a convict’s commander the discretion on when to start the discharge process, according to Donald G. Rehkopf Jr., a New York attorney and former Air Force lawyer who has specialized in military law for 32 years. If an appeal or pardon were pending, the commander likely held off on starting that process, he said.
Gomez and his wife, Sherly Gomez, eventually divorced, and he has since remarried. Sherly Gomez and his current wife supported his pardon request, according to court documents.
The Gomez case has raised questions similar to those posed by other former spouses of military men who were found to have been abusive.
The system tends to favor the military member, not the victim, and minimizes the violence or threats of harm, several former spouses and their relatives told The Advertiser.
“Do you know how hard it is to get someone kicked out of the military for domestic violence?” asked Joy Lacanienta, who was abused by her Army husband in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “It’s close to impossible.”
Lacanienta said her now ex-husband eventually was discharged after the Army confirmed the abuse, but it took tremendous effort just to get his commanders to take the matter seriously.
Donna LaDuke, whose stepdaughter, Felicia LaDuke, was killed by a Schofield Barracks soldier in 2005, said multiple warning signs were ignored before Felicia’s death. According to testimony at Jeffery White’s murder trial, 24 military members or their spouses had heard him threaten Felicia in the 18 months before she was killed. But no one took White’s threats seriously or reported them to his superiors or the police, LaDuke said.
White eventually was court-martialed for LaDuke’s murder and is serving a life prison term with no possibility of parole.
The Army said it thoroughly investigates all allegations of domestic abuse, noting that such offenses undermine the mission readiness and well-being of soldiers and family members.
“In every instance, substantiated cases of domestic violence are taken seriously and aggressively pursued by the Army, ensuring proper protection and justice for victim and accountability for offender,” spokesman Loran Doane said in an e-mail.
Reach Rob Perez at email@example.com.