WESTON, Fla. (AP) – A retired U.S. Marine who fought in Afghanistan returned home to Florida on Saturday after spending eight months in a Mexican jail for crossing the border with loaded guns, a case that led U.S. politicians to bring intense pressure on Mexico to release him.
Family spokesman Jon Franks said the private plane carrying Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, his mother and supporters — including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — landed at a South Florida airport about 6 a.m.
Tahmooressi was freed Friday night and was reunited with his mother, Jill, and then boarded the flight to Florida in San Diego.
"They're just spending time together, trying to figure out what's next," Franks told reporters at a hotel in this suburb west of Fort Lauderdale. "They need some time to decompress." Neither Tahmooressi nor any family members attended the news conference.
Tahmooressi, 26, has said he took a wrong turn on a California freeway that funneled him into a Tijuana port of entry with no way to turn back, and that he had no intention of illegally bringing guns into Mexico. His detention brought calls for his freedom from U.S. politicians, veterans groups and social media campaigns. A U.S. congressional committee held a hearing on the case.
In Mexico, possession of weapons restricted for use by the Army is a federal crime, and the country has been tightening up its border checks to stop the flow of U.S. weapons that have been used by drug cartels.
In his order Friday, the Mexican judge did not make a determination on the illegal arms charges against Tahmooressi but freed him because of his mental state, according to a Mexican official who had knowledge of the ruling but was not authorized to give his name. Tahmooressi suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment for which Franks said would be the first order of business now that he is back in the U.S.
"It's set up," Franks said. "I think he's going to bounce back pretty quickly."
One other priority: after 214 days in the Mexican jail, Tahmooressi wants to grab some dinner as soon as possible at famed South Beach seafood eatery Joe's Stone Crab, Franks said.
Richardson, the former Democratic governor who grew up in Mexico and has negotiated on a range of international issues, said he met with Tahmooressi in jail in the border city of Tecate, and he had talked to Mexican officials to urge them to release Tahmooressi on humanitarian grounds.
"I respect Mexico's judicial process, and I am pleased that Andrew was released today and will return home to his family," Richardson said in a statement Friday.
Saturday brought another outpouring of support and commentary from Democratic and Republican political figures alike about Tahmooressi's release. Mexican authorities, however, had made clear that they would not be influenced by politics and that the matter was in the hands of its courts.
The case marks one of the first times Mexico made a ruling on PTSD — though the psychological wound is increasingly used in U.S. courts, especially in arguing for reduced prison sentences.
In his truck when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, Tahmooressi was carrying a rifle, shotgun, pistol and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. His attorney, Fernando Benitez, argued that Tahmooressi carries loaded guns with him because his weapons, which were bought legally in the U.S., make him feel safer. He added that the veteran is often distracted, which could have contributed to him becoming lost.
Still, Mexican prosecutors insisted for months that Tahmooressi broke the law. Tahmooressi never admitted wrongdoing, and he still maintains his innocence, his attorney said.
After being jailed in Tijuana, he tried to kill himself by cutting his neck with a shard from a light bulb in his cell because the guards and inmates threatened to rape, torture and kill him, Tahmooressi's mother said.
He was transferred to another prison, where a pastor visited him regularly and the Mexican government says he was under medical observation.
But a psychiatrist hired by Mexican prosecutors to examine the Afghanistan veteran agreed with the defense that he should get PTSD treatment in the United States, noting in a Sept. 30 report that Tahmooressi, who now serves in the Marine reserve, feels like he is constantly in danger.
Tahmooressi left Florida for San Diego in January to get help after dropping out of college, unable to concentrate or sleep, his mother said.