MIAMI — A Miami veteran of U.S. service in Iraq, who took some of the military’s most intimate photos of captives in the prison camps at Guantanamo as a combat photographer, was in a detention center Thursday, facing a federal fraud trial.
Federal prosecutors charge that former Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins, 26, committed a crime when he applied for a U.S. passport April 3, 2006. The government says he made a false statement, a felony, when he failed to disclose that he had three years earlier started the process of applying for a passport. Conviction could carry 10 years in prison.
A classic South Florida tale, Dawkins grew up in Miami, went to Poinciana Park Elementary, competed in sports at Miami Central High School and served in the military with distinction, only to return to an arrest and possible deportation to The Bahamas.
His lawyer says he grew up fatherless and estranged from his mother, staying with relatives in Miami, believing he was a U.S. citizen. He even obtained a Florida birth certificate to get a passport to travel to war as a soldier, with the Navy, the Army and the state of Florida all apparently unaware of a two-decade-old immigration service removal order issued when he was 8 years old.
“He never knowingly and willfully deceived the government,” said Miami attorney, Clark D. Mervis, who was appointed to the case in May after a federal court declared Dawkins indigent.
“Not only did he serve the nation honorably, but he’s lived here all his life,” Mervis said.
As an Army specialist, Dawkins was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and served as a combat cameraman chasing behind U.S. and Iraqi forces. He got an honorable discharge, obtained a nursing degree at Florida State College in Jacksonville and joined the Naval Reserves, which sent him to Guantanamo last year to serve eight months as a petty officer with the prison camps’ public relations unit.
Thursday, the detention center’s website was still showcasing his work in the military’s photographers archive.
His images included one of a captive in shackles being given an X-ray by a fellow Navy petty officer; two detainees hanging laundry in a recreation yard of a prison camp, where an Afghan detainee would later commit suicide; and another detainee being treated in a dental chair. He also took pictures of the sergeant major of the Army touring the maximum-security prison building and the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders signing autographs at Guantanamo on Super Bowl Sunday.
“His pictures are going to be part of the historical record,” Mervis said.
Thursday, Dawkins was himself confined to a detention center — the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, which once housed former “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla during his terrorism trial.
A day earlier, a federal magistrate, William C. Turnoff, approved his release on a $100,000 bond — meaning he had to put up $10,000 — on condition he not stray beyond Miami and Jacksonville, and report his whereabouts to the government three times a week. Asked about Dawkins’ aspirations, the lawyer said, “He wants to get out of jail, go back to Jacksonville, where he lives, and continue his work there as a nurse.”
But the case is a mysterious one that appears to reflect a disconnect in federal agencies even today, a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spurred a push for greater information sharing.
Even if the lawyer raises the bond, Mervis said the U.S. immigration authority has an 18-year-old removal order in Dawkins’ name, stemming from the time his mother was deported — meaning once released from federal detention, he could be scooped up and held at Miami’s Krome Detention Center to face deportation proceedings on his own. Yet, at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a spokeswoman, Danielle Bennett, said Thursday that the immigration authority “does not currently have a detainer lodged on Dawkins” — the mechanism to scoop him up.
His lawyer also said that as of Thursday, Dawkins still held a “secret” security clearance issued to him by the Navy and until his arrest was being encouraged by the Navy Reserves to do another active-duty stint.
Dawkins, allegedly believing he was a U.S. citizen, obtained a retroactive Florida birth certificate on March 30, 2006, declaring he was born on Oct. 21, 1984, in Miami-Dade County. In 2003, he started the process of applying for a U.S. passport but let it lapse after realizing he had insufficient documentation. He applied again, in April 2006, and got a passport but put a check mark in a box marked “no” in response to a question on whether he had earlier applied for a passport — the crux of his alleged felony.
Jessica Hammond, an official at the Florida Department of Health, on Thursday was checking how Dawkins obtained the U.S. birth certificate at age 21 if immigration officials had indeed ordered his deportation at age 8 as a Bahamian.
Moreover, his court record shows that federal prosecutors indicted him in March, in Miami, while he was still serving in a Navy uniform about 400 miles away in southeast Cuba.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a foreigner serving in the U.S. military, but they must be lawful green-card holders. By virtue of his service, Dawkins could apply for a fast track to U.S. citizenship. But a felony conviction would disqualify him.
According to his service record, Dawkins received an array of ribbons and medals and was twice honorably discharged from the military.
In Guantanamo, the prison camps spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, said Thursday that Dawkins received no decorations for his eight-month Navy stint there from Sept. 4, 2010, until April 2.
Mervis said the Miami man found a home in the military and was seriously considering another stint, once he completed certification as a nurse, which was scheduled for this month but sidelined by his arrest in May. “He’s estranged from his family,” said Mervis. “As a practical matter, his family is the U.S. military.”