White House intruder pleads guilty

"He is lucky to be alive," U.S. attorney says of the White House fence jumper, who pleaded guilty Friday

On a warm, late summer evening last year, Omar Gonzalez parked his car near the White House and took his two dogs for a walk.

Over the next hour, he walked around the perimeter of the executive mansion. He’d been preoccupied with the building, authorities said, since he’d returned home from an Army tour in Iraq, where he was wounded.

Eventually, Gonzalez stopped at a fence. He scaled it, ran past uniformed Secret Service agents and, according to court documents, barged through the White House doors as an agent attempted to close them.

“Let me in!” Gonzalez shouted.

He managed to run inside before, finally, he was subdued.

The details of the Sept. 19 intrusion that prompted an internal inquiry at the Secret Service and added to a string of embarrassing incidents for the agency were presented in federal court Friday as Gonzalez pleaded guilty to two federal offenses.

The charges — unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a dangerous weapon and assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers — each carry a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. But the plea agreement reached between Gonzalez and the government calls for a prison term of 12 to 18 months, after which he would be put on supervised release. A final sentence will come after a June 8 hearing.

During a 40-minute proceeding in federal court, Gonzalez agreed that he had ignored repeated orders from uniformed Secret Service agents to stop as he ran to and ultimately into the White House, before he was tackled near the East Room. Agents discovered a folding knife with a 3 1/2-inch serrated blade in his pocket. He told interviewers he wanted to tell President Obama that “the atmosphere was collapsing.” Authorities have not explained what that might have referred to.

A search of Gonzalez’s vehicle turned up hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two hatchets and a machete. The original indictment included an ammunition possession charge as well as other municipal offenses.

Gonzalez, 43, clad in an orange jumpsuit, spoke in court Friday only to give brief, tentative responses to the judge, at one point saying he was taking prescription medication. Psychiatrists found that Gonzalez was competent to stand trial, but under terms of the plea agreement will forgo one. Family members have said Gonzalez, an Army combat veteran, was wounded by an improvised bomb in Iraq and struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning to Texas.

Under the agreement, Gonzalez also agreed not to enter Washington, other than for court appearances, and to avoid physical or online contact with facilities or people protected by the Secret Service other than for “political discourse.” He will be evaluated by a Secret Service psychologist, and agreed to be interviewed by agents to assess any threat he poses.

“We are pleased that Mr. Gonzalez has chosen to take responsibility for his incomprehensible decision to leap a fence and charge into the White House with a knife,” U.S. Atty. Ronald C. Machen said in a statement. “He is lucky to be alive.”

Prosecutors agreed to a more lenient sentence than federal guidelines specify in part because Gonzalez is a first-time offender. Judge Rosemary M. Collyer could still decide on a lengthier prison term, however.

“We hope that this prosecution deters others in the future from taking any actions that threaten the First Family, the White House and the public servants who work there,” Machen said.

Gonzalez’s appearance in court comes amid a new scandal for the Secret Service, accusations that two top agents drove into a bomb investigation scene on White House grounds after a night out drinking and that a supervisor who wanted them to submit to sobriety tests was overruled.

The agents drove very close to a suspicious package, which ultimately was found to be only a book, the Washington Post reported.

President Obama remains confident in the agency and its director, Joseph Clancy, whom he installed in recent months, a White House spokesman said. But members of Congress expressed concern over whether new leadership was enough.

“The fact that this event involved senior-level agents is not only embarrassing but exhibits a clear lack of judgment in a potentially dangerous situation,” Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said in a joint statement.

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli

Staff writer Richard A. Serrano contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

2:49 p.m.: This story has been updated with background on the Secret Service and more details from Friday's hearing.

12:03 p.m.: This story has been updated with Gonzalez's guilty plea.

This post was originally published at 8:05 a.m.

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