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Civilian pleads not guilty to wearing Navy medals

By Alan Duke, CNN
Steven Burton will make his initial court appearance in federal court Thursday.
Steven Burton will make his initial court appearance in federal court Thursday.
  • Man faces charge for allegedly wearing Navy medals despite never serving in military
  • Steven Burton, 39, of California, surrenders, has initial court hearing
  • Authorities say Burton has been photographed wearing military uniforms
  • FBI affidavit says Burton blogged during August 2009 about being a Marine

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- A California man faces a federal trial in January because of what he allegedly wore to his 20th high school reunion earlier this year -- a U.S. Marine uniform decorated with some of the nation's highest military medals.

Steve Burton, 39, never served in any branch of the U.S. military, but he was seen and photographed several times wearing a Marine uniform and various medals, including the Navy Cross, the highest medal awarded exclusively by the U.S. Navy, federal investigators said.

The Palm Springs, California, bank officer entered a not guilty plea Thursday to a charge of "unauthorized wearing of military medals or decorations." The federal misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in federal prison upon conviction.

When Burton made his initial appearance in federal court in Riverside, California, a magistrate set his bond at $10,000, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis. He posted the bond and was released. A trial was set for January 10, 2010, Akrotirianakis said.

"He has been charged, but these are only allegations," Burton's lawyer, Michael DeFrank, said Wednesday.

The Marine dress blue uniform with lieutenant colonel insignia on the epaulets and a chest full of colorful ribbons may have impressed some old classmates, but one person at the reunion was suspicious, according to an FBI agent's affidavit.

Lt. Cmdr. Colleen Salonga, a U.S. Navy supply officer, recognized the Navy Cross and knew how rarely that honor is awarded, the sworn statement said. She posed with Burton for a photo, which she sent to the FBI in June, it said.

The FBI agent said Internet research showed that Burton had blogged in August 2009 about being a Marine and receiving many commendations and awards. His postings also discussed engaging in combat and serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, the documents said. He said he'd served in Falluja, a city in Iraq's largely Sunni Arab Anbar province where Marines and militants battled for years.

Burton posted a picture of himself online standing on a beach at Coronado Island, California, wearing a Marine dress uniform, the affidavit said. In the picture, he is wearing the rank of gunnery sergeant and is displaying medals including the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Navy and Marine Corps medal, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, among others.

An American flag flew on a pole on the front lawn of Burton's Palm Springs home Wednesday.

Burton, who was off work because it was Veterans Day, would not come to the door, and a man who came to the door referred CNN to Burton's lawyer, DeFrank. The man said he was Burton's partner for 18 years and retired from the U.S. Air Force.

A next-door neighbor described Burton as "quiet and nice." She said she saw agents carry away several boxes from the home two weeks ago.

A search warrant was executed at Burton's home, said Akrotirianakis, who did not divulge what was found there.

Akrotirianakis also would not say where authorities believe Burton obtained the medals. However, an Internet search showed several medals -- or possibly replicas -- for sale online, despite a law banning their advertisement or sale. Even if a medal is a replica, wearing it still violates federal law, Akrotirianakis said.

The Navy Cross is the second-highest award a sailor or Marine can be awarded for valor, behind only the Medal of Honor. It is comparable to the Army's Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross. It is awarded for "extreme gallantry and risk of life, beyond the call of duty, performed in combat with an enemy force," according to the prosecutors' statement.

The Bronze Star is awarded for "heroic and meritorious achievement or service," while the Purple Heart is awarded "for being wounded or killed in action against an enemy of the United States."