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Veteran accused of passport fraud freed days ahead of trial

By Greg Botelho, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Government OKs lowering the bond for Elisha Leo Dawkins, expediting his release
  • He is charged with passport fraud, a charge punishable by up to 10 years in prison
  • Prosecutors say that Dawkins, a Navy and Army veteran, lied on his passport application
  • His lawyer and friends say the mistake was innocent and understandable

(CNN) -- A Navy veteran was freed from a federal detention center Friday, giving him four days of freedom before the start of his trial for allegedly lying on his passport application.

Former Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins has been behind bars since April, having been detained nine days after returning from a stint in Cuba working as a military photographer.

He could get 10 years in prison if convicted of lying five years ago on a passport application, as federal prosecutors contend. But his attorney, Clark Mervis, has told CNN that his client's actions were understandable and innocent.

A hearing was held in a federal court Friday, at which the government agreed to reduce Dawkins' bond to effectively nothing and paved the way for his release, said Annette Castillo of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.

The government went along with a bond reduction after the Department of Homeland Security lifted an immigration detainer against Dawkins, Castillo explained by e-mail.

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.

"Flash" Gordon Schwartz, 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 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, working as a military photographer, according to Schwartz. He returned to the United States on April 10, and was detained nine days later, said Dianne Rinehardt, a veteran who met him while both were in nursing school.

Schwartz, who is a Jacksonville accountant and also has Dawkins' power of attorney, said Friday that his friend is happy to be free and is looking forward to his day in court.

"You have a dedicated young man, who is dedicated to the United States," said Schwartz, noting he talked with his friend after his release. "He just wants to clear his name."

Dawkins' determination is so firm, according to his friend who is also his power of attorney, that he turned down an offer from the U.S. Attorney's office to drop the charges once he completed a supervised pretrial diversion program.

Schwartz said that he plans to testify on his friend's behalf as a character witness, as will some of Dawkins' former "direct supervisors in the military."

In recent weeks, Dawkins' case has gained national attention with friends, politicians, past colleagues and strangers among the hundreds supporting a man who joined the U.S. Army upon graduating from high school. He served a tour in Iraq, and then joined the Navy in part so he could attend nursing school and re-enlist, Schwartz said.

A document, provided to CNN by Schwartz as authorized by U.S. Navy Vice Adm. 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.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, raised such positive performance evaluations when he pressed the federal government for more information on Dawkins' case in an address late last month on the Senate floor.

He spoke in favor of the Dream Act bill, which would give children who have grown up in the United States an opportunity to gain citizenship despite their family's immigration status. Nelson also challenged that whether it was fair for Dawkins to get 10 years for his passport application.

"All John Dillinger served in prison was eight and a half years on a conviction for assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony," the senator said.

After serving a tour in Iraq plus time in Cuba and elsewhere, Dawkins recently learned that he may not be a U.S. citizen, Mervis said. Dawkins had been told by his mother, who is from the Bahamas, that he was born in Miami, and he had a Social Security number and birth certificate, according to Schwartz.

Schwartz said Friday that Dawkins' future plans haven't changed: get exonerated and eventually rejoin the Navy, this time as a nurse.

"He's not going anywhere," said Schwartz. "He wants to finish his schooling and re-enlist."

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