Marine Jailed in Mexico Is Released
With his arrest quickly becoming a binational political issue, a Marine Corps sergeant has been freed from a Mexican jail two weeks after being seized for inadvertently entering Mexico while on duty with guns in his car.
Sgt. Brian Johnston, 23, a driver in a transportation unit at Camp Pendleton, was released near midnight Friday after a judge in Tijuana dropped a weapons charge against him.
“I missed my Marine Corps birthday,” joked Johnston, a reference to last week’s 224th anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps.
Johnston was greeted by Brig. Gen. Bradley Lott and two San Diego-area congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Brian Bilbray, both Republicans.
Hunter and Bilbray were among a number of elected officials who had lobbied the Mexican government to release Johnston. President Clinton had promised Friday to intervene with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo if Johnston was not released.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote Jesus Reyes Heroles, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, that “this incident has created heightened tensions in the San Diego-Tijuana region and threatens to jeopardize binational relations.”
Late Friday, a Mexican judge, acting on a request by Mexican federal prosecutors, dropped a charge of weapons possession, which could have carried a prison term of up to 12 years. A smuggling charge had been dropped earlier.
Saturday afternoon, Johnston had a joyful reunion with his wife, Crystal, and their two sons, 3 months and 3 years, at the San Diego airport. Johnston’s family had flown to San Diego from their home near the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“It feels good to be home, to be back in the USA, listening to people speaking English,” Johnston said.
Crystal Johnston, her eyes filled with tears, said, “I’m ecstatic. I want us to be a family again.”
Johnston said he was not mistreated during his incarceration. Marine Corps and Shore Patrol personnel visited him daily, bringing him food and news of efforts made on his behalf.
Bilbray and Hunter said Saturday that they will seek to establish a formal agreement between the two governments on handling incidents in which military or law enforcement personnel from one country stray into the other while carrying weapons.
“This young man was not smuggling,” Bilbray said. “He was serving his country.”
Johnston, a five-year veteran of the Marine Corps with a string of commendations, had been ordered Oct. 30 to go to the San Ysidro border and pick up two Marines detained by the Navy Shore Patrol.
Driving his 1996 pickup truck, Johnston got into the wrong lane on Interstate 5 and traveled south of the border. He had planned to stop on the U.S. side to pick up the two Marines.
Stopped by Mexican authorities and asked if he had any weapons, Johnston answered yes; a disassembled 9-millimeter Beretta pistol and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle were in a toolbox. Large signs warn motorists entering Mexico that bringing in weapons is illegal.
Both of the weapons belonged to Johnston, not the military, and were registered. There was no ammunition in the toolbox.
Johnston, a Montana native who does not speak Spanish, was taken to a Tijuana jail and later to a Mexican state penitentiary on the outskirts of the sprawling border city.
In discussions with Mexican law enforcement personnel and diplomats, U.S. officials came armed with a list of incidents in which Mexican military or police personnel traveled north of the border while carrying weapons and were allowed to return to Mexico without incident.
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