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Military vet faces prospect of 10 years in prison for passport fraud

By Greg Botelho and Dave Alsup, CNN
Former U.S. Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins was arrested in April.
Former U.S. Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins was arrested in April.
  • NEW:In evaluations, superiors give positive reviews of Dawkins, who had secret clearance
  • The Navy and Army vet is now in federal custody after being charged with passport fraud
  • His arrest comes after he failed to say he had previously submitted a passport application
  • His supporters call it an innocent oversight, albeit one that may spur a long sentence

(CNN) -- Days after photographing scenes at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, a U.S. Navy veteran found himself behind bars -- where he could remain for a decade -- for alleged passport fraud.

Former U.S. Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins was arrested in April, spending Friday like many others in a federal detention center in Miami. A federal indictment says Dawkins' failed to acknowledged that he'd once applied for a passport when filling out a new application, something his lawyer Clark Mervis calls an innocent oversight -- albeit one punishable by up to 10 years in prison, if he's convicted.

His case has triggered an online and letter-writing campaign from Dawkins' supporters, including an effort to raise $10,000 for his release on bond.

"He put his life on the line," said friend Dianne Rinehardt, a veteran herself who met Dawkins in nursing school. "I am not going to allow anyone to belittle his service to his country."

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida, via spokeswoman Marlene Rodriguez, declined to comment on Dawkins' case, because it is still active. Sarah Rosetti -- a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, which investigates passport fraud -- similarly would not address the matter because it was an "ongoing investigation."

The grand jury indictment claims that Dawkins "did knowingly and willfully make a false statement" on an April 2006 passport application completed in Miami-Dade County. Specifically, Dawkins said that he had never before requested a U.S. passport, "when in truth ... and as the defendant ... knew, he had previously applied," according to the indictment.

The U.S. State Department calls passports "the most highly valued travel document in the world." The department opened 5,282 investigations into passport and visa fraud worldwide last year, leading to 1,680 arrests.

"Flash" Gordon Schwartz, a Jacksonville accountant and a former Navy pilot, said that his friend Dawkins started filling out a passport application in 2004 but didn't finish it. When he filled out another application two years later, Dawkins checked "no" next to the question about whether he'd completed an application previously -- assuming that was the right answer, since his previous attempt wasn't complete.

He got the passport. But five years later, in March, a warrant was issued for Dawkins' arrest -- at the same time he was in Cuba working as a military photographer, according to Schwartz. He returned to the United States on April 10, and was arrested nine days later, Rinehardt said.

"When you have a good-hearted person who serves their country and is doing everything the right way, we need to have some leniency," said Schwartz, who is trying to raise the bond money for Dawkins.

Adding to the complexity of the case is the fact that Dawkins is not a U.S. citizen -- something that, according to his attorney, he learned only recently and did not factor into his arrest. Dawkins had been told by his mother that he was born in Miami, and he had a social security number and birth certificate, added Schwartz.

His friend said he fears that, if Dawkins is released on bond (or even if he's exonerated on the passport fraud charge), he'll be detained and possibly deported to the Bahamas, where his mother hails from.

But Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said that the agency doesn't have a detainer for Dawkins, which would be used to keep him in federal custody on immigration charges.

The questions of his citizenship notwithstanding, Dawkins has served in the U.S. military since graduating from high school, said Schwartz. That includes one tour of duty in Iraq as an Army photographer, before he switched to the Navy Reserves -- in part so he could attend nursing school, in hopes of eventually putting those skills to work in the military, Schwartz said.

"He is committed to the country. He's committed to always doing the right thing," Schwartz said of his friend. "He's a leader, he's an overachiever, and he's super-friendly."

A document, provided to CNN by Schwartz as authorized by U.S. Navy Vice Admiral M.E. Ferguson III, indicates that Dawkins had secret clearance while at Guantanamo. In an evaluation report, one superior lauds Dawkins as "a team player ... with a strong work ethic and desire to learn" and recommends him for promotion.

"Dawkins is eager to tell the military story and to further the the image and success of U.S. service members," wrote Petty Officer 1st Class Sally Hendricks.

Rinehardt, who said she had no idea where Dawkins was until this week, has started a fledgling Facebook group entitled "Help Elisha be a Free Man!!" to raise awareness and support. U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, is one of those legislators who have received letters on the subject, while Schwartz said that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has taken particular interest in the case.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said, the U.S. Treasury Department is among those federal agencies going after Dawkins -- for falling behind on his student loans, related to his nursing studies, while he's been behind bars.

According to Mervis, a bond hearing is scheduled next week. Rodriguez, from the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that a calendar call hearing will take place June 28, at which point more details -- including a possible trial date -- could be finalized.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said that his normally upbeat friend is struggling to keep up his morale while in federal detention.

"He's extremely upset, but he's dealing with it as best he can," Schwartz said. "He just says, 'Tell me it's all going to be OK.'"