Marine heads to federal court in Iraq war trophy case
By CHELSEA J. CARTER
The Associated Press
A Marine sergeant accused of bringing home an AK-47 assault rifle as a war trophy from Iraq is headed to federal court to face charges he failed to properly register the weapon.
Jury selection was set to begin Monday in the trial of Sgt. Leonardo San Juan, who is charged with one felony count of possession of an unregistered firearm.
The charges stem from accusations that San Juan, 31, brought back the AK-47 with him more than two years ago from his service in Iraq, according to a grand jury indictment filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
"If you believe the allegation, all it is is a war trophy," said San Juan's attorney, Joseph Low. "It's not like he went out and committed a crime, shot it or had ammo in it."
Deborah Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. District Attorney's Office, declined comment on the case.
San Juan, of El Paso, Texas, has pleaded innocent to the charge. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison and a discharge from the Marine Corps for having a felony conviction.
War trophies, per se, are not illegal for troops to bring home. But they must be approved by U.S. Central Command, which oversees troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, before they are brought into the United States.
In recent years, a handful of troops have been prosecuted for possessing war trophies, such as antiques and weapons.
The case against San Juan began on June 25, 2006, when his fiance went to a gun range to learn how to shoot his .45 caliber handgun. At the range, a gun range safety officer attempted to show her how to use it but she struggled with the gun's slide and safety. When asked if she had access to another weapon that might be easier to use, she allegedly said she had "AKs in her garage," the indictment said.
The gun range safety officer then contacted law enforcement officials, who subsequently searched the garage and found the rifle stored in a plastic bin. It was later turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for testing.
ATF agents, according to the indictment, traced the origins of the AK-47 from its manufacturing in Bulgaria to its distribution to the Iraqi National Force.
Because the rifle is a fully functional automatic weapon, prosecutors had to apply for a special waiver to bring the weapon to court to use as an exhibit in the case, according to court records.
Published: Monday, June 2, 2008 02:06 PDT
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