MIAMI — A Marine veteran treated at The Pathway Home in Yountville faces charges in Mexico that he carried a shotgun with a barrel that’s an inch too short across the border.
Jon Hammar, who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and was in Yountville until May for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, has been in prison since Aug. 13.
His South Florida family recently launched a publicity effort to get him released from prison after other attempts to free him failed.
Members of the Napa Noon Rotary Club, who learned of his plight from recent stories in national print and broadcast media are trying to figure out ways to help the 27-year-old man.
“He’s a good man,” said Steve Orndorf, a Rotary member and a supporter of the veterans at The Pathway Home.
Hammar and his friend were on their way to Costa Rica in August and planned to drive across the Mexican border near Matamoros in a Winnebago filled with surfboards and camping gear. Hammar, 27, asked U.S. border agents what to do with the unloaded shotgun, which his family said belonged to his great-grandfather.
“They examined it, they weighed it, they said you have to fill out this form,” his father, Jon Hammar, told the Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday from his home near Miami.
But when the pair crossed the border and handed the paperwork to Mexican officials, they impounded the RV and jailed the men, saying it was illegal to carry that type of gun. Hammar’s friend was later released because the gun did not belong to him.
Pathway Executive Director Fred Guzman said he kept in touch with Hammar by text messaging after his discharge, as he does with other veterans. He last heard from Hammar before he headed to Mexico.
Hammar, who enjoys surfing, hiking, music and meditating had planned to go to Costa Rica after traveling with his family to Hawaii, Guzman said.
“It wasn’t an impulse plan to go to Costa Rica,” Guzman said. “That was part of his discharge plan.”
An online petition to get Hammar released is under way.
“He shouldn’t be there,” Guzman said. “Everybody is concerned and angry.”
Rotary volunteers in Napa are trying to figure out how to send him care packages and letters, said Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko, the Rotary club’s president-elect.
“I am horrified by what has happened to Jon, particularly because he was trying to overcome PTSD by having a relaxing time surfing in Costa Rica,” Nemko said in an email Friday. I have no idea what the American government has done, but it certainly seems like they should be trying harder on his behalf.”
“Several of us in Rotary have been talking with Congressman (Mike) Thompson, who picked up the banner as soon as he heard about Jon’s plight. I think that finally getting news coverage, which has begun this week, will be a tremendous help,” Nemko said.
“If we can’t get him out of Mexico, we’re hoping the Rotary Club can send letters and packages. If I was scared and in his situation, the worst thing would be to think that no one knows or cares, and it would be very comforting to get something from the people at home. So, once we find out if we can get things to Jon, we’ll get the club going,” she said.
The attorney for Hammar family’s said Mexican law prohibits civilians from carrying certain types of guns, like sawed-off shotguns, which can be more easily concealed. Mexican law prohibits shotguns with a barrel of less than 25 inches (63.5 centimeters). Family attorney Eddie Varon-Levy said Mexican officials measured the barrel on Hammar’s shotgun as
24 inches (61 centimeters). It has not been sawed off.
Family members said the gun was purchased at Sears and blamed U.S. officials for telling Hammar he could bring it across the border in the first place.
Varon-Levy also questioned the way Mexican officials measured the gun, because the measurements can differ depending on where they are taken on the barrel.
He said dealing with Mexican authorities has also been difficult. He said Hammar was brought to court a few weeks ago, where officials tried to convince him to plead guilty without a lawyer present. Varon-Levy said he didn’t show up because he was told it was postponed.
“I am fuming,” he said.
Hammar could face 12 years in prison, but Varon-Levy said that’s unlikely. He wants to get the charges downgraded, hoping Hammar can plead guilty to a lesser charge of carrying an unregistered weapon, which only carries a fine.
Hammar served in Iraq and Afghanistan before being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2007. His mother said surfing helped him cope after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Mexican authorities have fully guaranteed his right to Consular assistance; therefore Mr. Hammar has been in contact with U.S. Consular officers in Mexico who have regularly visited him,” Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy, said in a statement. “The possession of any weapon restricted for the use of the Army in Mexico is a Federal crime, regardless of whether you declare it or not upon entering the country, and must be automatically prosecuted.”
Alday said Hammar was detained in Tamaulipas “and as any other detainee facing criminal charges he has the right to defense counsel and a fair trial. In addition, his life and integrity are protected by national and international laws.”
Meanwhile, Hammar is being held in one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico.
Matamoros is the long-time headquarters of the Gulf Cartel, which has been engaged in a bloody struggle with its former security guards, the Zetas, since early 2010 for the lucrative drug routes along the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border. An October 2011 fight among inmates at the prison left 20 dead and 12 injured.
At first, Hammar was held with the general population, filled mostly with members of drug cartels. Now he is periodically chained to his bed in a cell by himself, said his father, he speaks with his son by phone occasionally.
“Sometimes he’s got his head on good. We’re like just, ‘Hang in there. We’re doing everything we can.’ Other days, it’s like, it’s not as good,” Jon Hammar said, sighing heavily and struggling to steady his voice.
In August, the family received a frightening middle of the night phone call from the cartel demanding money, said Jon Hammar, a 48-year-old software engineer.
“‘Lady, this isn’t about the police. This is our house. We have your son. We’re going to kill him if you don’t send us money,”’ Hammar said, recounting the phone call.
The couple planned to wire the money to an account, but officials at the U.S. consulate intervened and contacted prison officials. His son was moved into a private cell the next day, he said.
Register reporter Kerana Todorov contributed to this report.