Escape of an Innocent Man: Truth Will Always be Worth the Risks

posted Jun 24, 2020, 3:01 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jun 24, 2020, 3:07 PM ]

Marine Sergeant Mike Taylor had been in the Corps for six years and his enlistment was coming to an end in two months. First Sergeant Douglas Collins called him into his office.

“You wanted to see me, First Sergeant?” Mike stopped in the doorway.

“Yeah, come in and take a seat.”

Mike complied and waited for Collins to speak. “Your enlistment is almost up. Made any decisions yet?”

“When I was on deployment, I thought I’d join the sheriff’s department or the highway patrol when I got out.” The doubt in his voice was unmistakable.

“But since you got back, you’re not too sure,” Collins guessed.

“Things are getting complicated outside the gate. I’m not sure where I fit in anymore.”

“You’ve got some time left, but eventually I’m going to need a decision from you.”

“I’m working on it.” Mike smiled. “I should have an answer for you real soon.”

“You’re a good Marine and the Corps could use men like you.”

“Thanks Top.”

Mike never thought about being anything but a law officer while growing up in the small town of Menifee, California. His father was a deputy sheriff, uncle was a highway patrol officer, mother was a 911 dispatcher, and brother was a state park ranger. His sister went to law school and was working at the district attorney’s office in Santa Barbara County. It seemed the entire family was connected to law enforcement in one way or another.

Before he was out of grade school, Mike knew all the criminal codes. His father would say, “10-29.” And Mike would answer, “Check wants and warrants.” After high school he thought the best way to serve his country and get law enforcement experience at the same time was to become a 5811, a military police officer. When he enlisted in the Marines, he requested that occupational specialty.

On his first overseas tour in Iraq, a truck loaded with explosives blew up near the checkpoint that he was guarding. The force of the explosion knocked Mike off his feet and he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The headaches and periods of dizziness lasted for two weeks. Even now, two years later, he still experienced minor side effects when the circumstances were just right. During his second tour in Afghanistan, while stationed at a high-risk outpost, the Marines came under attack several times from Taliban fighters. During one of these assaults, a force of heavily armed fighters breeched the perimeter. Mike and his fellow Marines positioned themselves between the enemy and the ammo dump, tenaciously defending their position through the night until reinforcements arrived the next morning. For his actions, Sergeant Taylor received the Silver Star.

Returning from overseas, Mike was pleased to get Pendleton as his duty station. It would give him the opportunity to visit his family when time permitted. He worked on Memorial Day weekend so he would have Father’s Day off.

Corporal Chris Brinton approached him after formation. “My father had a heart attack and is going in for surgery on Saturday. My mom told me it’s a routine procedure, but it still has some risks. I’d like to see him before he goes under the knife…just in case.”

“Did you request emergency leave?” Mike asked.

“Technically it’s not really an emergency. I talked to the First Sergeant and he said that if I could find someone to take my duty, he’d give me a ninety-six.” (Four days leave.)

“Am I first or last on your list?”

“Last. Everybody else has already made plans,” Chris said. “I’m bettin’ that you have too.”

“My father’s birthday is on June 18 and the family always combines it with Father’s Day. This year we’re having the party on the twenty-first.”

“No problem.” Chris shrugged and walked off.

That night Mike called his mother and explained his dilemma. Linda Taylor pondered the situation for a minute then asked, “What would you make feel worse, missing your father’s party or if your fellow Marine didn’t get a chance to see his father and something went wrong with his surgery? Ask yourself that question and you’ll know what to do.”

“You wouldn’t be mad if I didn’t make it?”

“We’d be disappointed obviously, but we’d understand. In case you’ve forgotten, your father and I both missed our share of holidays when you were growing up. Sometimes doing the right thing comes with a price.”

“That says it all,” Mike said. “Love you.”

Before Chris Brinton departed Camp Pendleton for the San Diego Airport, to catch his flight to Portland on Friday morning, he stopped at the Provost Marshal’s Office. Mike was on duty. “Thanks again for doing this.”

“I hope everything works out,” Mike said.

*  *  *

One area of the base bordered the Oceanside Harbor, Del Mar base housing, and the jetty. It didn’t belong to the city or the state and it wasn’t part of the base. It was a strip of federal land that just seemed to be forgotten by most people, but not all. There was a trail that led to the jetty and occasionally the homeless would use the area for their encampments. Since it was in close proximity to the base, the military police were told to keep an eye on the area for uncontrolled fires. Most of the police cruisers on base were two-wheel drive and could not make it up the rocky, sandy incline. The MPs would have to exit their vehicle at the bottom of the hill and walk the rest of the way.

It was 0430 hours on June 21 and Mike was patrolling the southwest sector of the base. He radioed in, “I’m going to check Dogpatch.” That was the designation of the area in question.

“Roger that, 26 Tango,” came the reply.

Mike parked and followed the standard routine. There were faint streaks of sunrise along the horizon and when he looked toward the jetty, he saw the faint outline of a boat. Suddenly two men jumped out of the brush and attacked Mike. He fought them off, but as he was beginning to get the upper hand in the altercation, another man came up behind him and knocked him to his knees with a stun gun. The man hit him with three long jolts of electricity, leaving the military policemen incapacitated.

The nervousness in his voice was clear when one of the men asked, “What are we going to do now?”

*  *  *

Raoul Garcia was a former Marine who received a bad conduct discharge when the military police found cocaine inside his vehicle while he was driving on base. He served a one year sentence at Miramar Brig, then after his release got a job as a cook at the Jolly Roger restaurant at Oceanside Harbor. He held a deep resentment for the Marine Corps, especially the military police. Once he scouted the area near the restaurant, he knew it would be a good place to bring drugs in from Mexico. It took a while, but eventually he made contact with the right people.

Today was the third delivery from the Sinaloa Cartel in the past two months. Mike moved slightly and Raoul shocked him again with the stun gun. “Finish loading the drugs. I need to think of a plan.”

There were four other men. Two worked for the Cartel and brought the drugs ashore from the boat one mile offshore. Two more came with Raoul. When they finished loading the cocaine and marijuana into the back of a four-wheel drive Toyota, one of the Cartel men said, “We need to get back to the boat. Where’s the money?”

Raoul reached down and pulled the M18 service pistol from Mike’s holster and shot the two Cartel soldiers with it. One of the other men looked on in disbelief, “What did you do that for? The Cartel is going to cut our heads off!”

“Why pay for something you can get for free?” Raoul smiled. “They’ll just think the M.P. shot them.”

The other man interjected gleefully, “Blame it on the Marine. I like that.”

“I wish I could trust you two to keep your mouths shut, but I can’t take that chance.” Then Raoul also shot his two cohorts dead.

By this time, Mike was beginning to regain his senses, but pretended to still be unconscious. There was nothing he could do, lying on the ground and without a weapon. Raoul looked down at the motionless Marine, “I wish I could stick around, but I got to be moving on." 

Mike got a very good look at Raoul’s face before he was hit with another jolt of electricity. The drug dealer tossed the Marine’s gun and radio into the brush and drove off. When he reached the bottom of the hill, he placed a small bag of cocaine under the front seat of the military police cruiser. “The icing on the cake, as they say.”

It was daylight now. Raoul knew he needed to move quickly because people were starting to approach his position. He turned off the dirt road onto Harbor Drive then pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant. Raoul pulled out a burner phone and made a call.

“911, how can I help you?” the operator said.

“I just heard gunshots along the beach access road that intersects Harbor Drive by the jetty. There’s an empty Camp Pendleton police car there.” Raoul said.

“What’s your name sir?”

Raoul disconnected and patiently waited for three Oceanside Police cars to arrive on site. By this time, traffic had picked up along Harbor Drive and there was no way to distinguish him from anybody else.

“I love it when a good plan comes together,” he said.

He was feeling pretty good about himself and in his overconfidence he overlooked something very important. His truck was parked directly under a surveillance camera mounted on the exterior wall of the Seafood Grille restaurant. It had a clear view of Raoul’s face and recorded his every movement.

As Mike struggled to his feet, the numerous electrical strikes made his whole body ache. He instinctively felt for gun and radio, then staggered down the hill to his cruiser. The Oceanside Police were already there. They took Mike to the Camp Pendleton Hospital for examination where he was kept overnight for observation.

Asleep in his hospital bed, Mike was awakened by First Sergeant Collins. He looked up. “Hey Top.”

“I just got back from the shooting site. Right now, the FBI, DEA, and NCIS are fighting over who has jurisdiction. I need you to tell me exactly what happened and don’t leave out one detail,” Collins ordered.

Mike rubbed his head. “Is there any way we can do this later?”

“No we can’t,” Collins responded firmly.

After Mike recounted every moment of his unfortunate encounter, “That’s everything from the time I left the front gate.”

“What I’m about to tell you…I never told you. You’re in a world of hurt, Devildog. Right now this looks like a drug deal gone bad. Your gun was found at the site, and drugs were in your car. They put a rush on the ballistics report and if your service weapon turns out to be the one that killed those four men, then they’ve got murder in the commission of a class A felony. That’s a minimum life sentence.”

“I’m innocent. You believe that, right?” Mike sighed.

“Absolutely, I wouldn’t have told you this otherwise. It doesn’t matter what I think. Right now you’re guilty and you’ve got nothing to prove otherwise, except your word… and that’s not worth much. You need to run.”

“Seriously?” Mike was flabbergasted that Collins would suggest this to him.

“It’s your call. Spending the rest of your life in a cell in Leavenworth; that’s a big, big gamble to take. I’ll do my best to figure out what happened, but there are no guarantees.”

Mike had never run from anything in his life and he was having a tough time processing this. “How long do I have before they come for me?”

“Maybe 12 hours if you’re lucky.”

“Where would I go?” Mike asked.

“Get everything of value that you can put in the back of your truck, close out any bank accounts, get rid of your cellphone and buy a couple prepaid phones. Go down to the lemon lot on base and switch plates on your truck for to a vehicle that some Marine is selling. Drive to Coure de’alene, Idaho. If you’re lucky to make it that far, go to a café called Ruby’s. Ask for a guy named Tank. When you meet him, say two words, John Basilone. He’ll take it from there. One more thing…don’t call anybody. Especially your family. They are going to be questioned when the authorities realize you’re gone. You don’t want them to have to lie for you.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Mike was choked up.

“Until we meet again…good luck.”

The media got hold of the story and ran with it: “Marine kills four in drug deal gone awry.”

Every law enforcement agency in the country received information on Mike Taylor and were told he should be considered armed and dangerous. A month passed and soon Mike became old news.

A big man, Tim “Tank” Collins was the older brother of First Sergeant Collins. He was also a former Marine and the current Sheriff of Nampa, Idaho. He actually resembled a more muscular version of Fred Flintstone. “What name do you want to use?” he asked Mike.

“I served with two Marines in Afghanistan, Tony Morenti and Joe Hancock. How’s Tony Hancock sound?”

Mike grew a mustache, let his hair grow out a couple inches, and kept a stubble on his face. When his look had changed enough from the clean-cut Marine, Tank helped him get an Idaho driver’s license. This was an area where people minded their business and didn’t ask too many questions. When Tank introduced Mike as his nephew, it was more than enough to make the young man welcome in the close-knit community.

*  *  *

Back at Camp Pendleton, the case continued to stir up heated emotions about corrupt people in the military. Federal law enforcement officials with their own agenda figured that someone had helped Mike Taylor escape. First Sergeant Collins was in their crosshairs. Both the FBI and NCIS interrogated him several times. They got warrants to tap his phone and keep him under surveillance, but the career Marine was up to the challenge. Agents were sent to question every member of his family, no matter how distant they were. When two agents came to Nampa to interview Tank, he responded curtly, “I don’t keep in touch with my brother.” When the agents checked his phone records, they found that to be true. Little did the agents know that they stood less than ten feet away from their target, who was now called Deputy Sheriff Tony Hancock when they were in the building.

Two months later, Mike joined the search and rescue team and began dating Alicia McGuire, a raft and wilderness guide who was also a member of the rescue team.

Raoul Garcia was living the good life in Imperial Beach. Joaquin Guzman, the Cartel leader, never believed how things went down near Camp Pendleton. Raoul’s story was that the MP and another man had ambushed them. He fought with the MP and barely managed to escape, but had no idea what happened to the drugs or the money.

First Sergeant Collins was almost ready to get off duty at the Provost Marshal’s Office when Staff Sergeant Victor Franco approached his desk, “I won a 100 dollar gift card on the radio for the Seafood Grille. I heard they got a really good happy hour. Want to help me spend it?”

“Let me finish a couple of things and we’re outta’ here.”

When the two Marines arrived at the Seafood Grille, Collins noticed the surveillance camera and a thought flashed through his mind. It was a longshot, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. While enjoying his beer and munching on appetizers, he asked the bartender, “Is the manager in?

“Yes sir,” the bartender replied.

“Would you mind calling him?”

A young man is his mid-thirties appeared a minute later. “I’m the manager.”

“I’m First Sergeant Collins. I’m with the military police on base. Can we talk in private?”

“Of course.”

Collins told Franco, “I’ll be back.”

As the manager began searching though the archived surveillance footage, he asked, “What was that date again?”

“June 21, between zero five hundred and zero six hundred hours”

It took a few minutes, but when the manager found the right time, it showed Raoul Garcia sitting in his truck, “Is this what you want?”

Collins smiled. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Can I get a copy.”

*  *  *

Mike was hiking with Alicia near Ellison Dam when three men with large backpacks struggling up a parallel trail aroused his suspicions. “Those guys seem a little inexperienced to be carrying such big loads. What do you think?”

“There’s nothing up that way except the dam…no campsites,” Alicia added.

“My curiosity is aroused.”

“Why don’t we follow them. I wouldn’t want you to walk around with an aroused curiosity. That could be dangerous to your health.”

They stayed out of sight of the three hikers but made sure they never lost track of where they were. When the three men reached the top of the damn, they found an area where they could set their packs down. From their vantage point, Mike and Alicia saw the men unpacking explosives and stretching out detonator cord. “Call 911,” Mike said.

“What are you going to do?” Alicia asked.

“I’ll figure that out when I get there.”

Mike ran off, stopping at the west end of the dam. Taking a deep breath, he raced toward the men. Without slowing down he grabbed the packs in rapid succession and threw them over the railing of the dam. Two exploded in mid-air without causing any damage to the structure. The third bomb had not been armed yet and it fell harmlessly to the water below. Mike turned his attention to the three men, throwing two over the side and subduing the third with a chokehold. When Tank arrived on site, he told Mike, “You better get out of here! You go too, Alicia.”

As they were driving back to town, Alicia asked, “Want to tell me what that was all about?”

Mike explained the circumstances that led him to Idaho and when he was finished he asked, “Does that make a difference between us?”

“It reaffirms what I already knew. You’re a good man Mike Taylor or Tony Hancock. Aren’t you going to ask me to not tell anybody about this?”

“No, you do whatever you think is best,” Mike said. “I won’t stop you.”

*  *  *

First Sergeant Collins had found a way to get a message to Mike without it being intercepted by law enforcement authorities. He was sitting in the Fisherman Restaurant and Bar in San Clemente when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He turned around to see Mike standing next to him, “It’s been a while, how are you doing?”

“Good…and you?” Mike answered.

“Not bad.” Collins pulled out his cellphone and showed Mike a photo,

“I wouldn’t have asked you to come back down if I didn’t think it was important. Is this the guy that tasered you?”

 “Yeah that’s him. What’s his name?”

“Raoul Garcia. A former Marine with a bad conduct discharge for drugs.”

“How’d you get the photo?”

“I’ll explain it all to you on the way. A friend of mine at Homeland Security told me where to find him. Want to take a ride?”

“I’d like nothing better.”

As the two men drove down Interstate Five from San Clemente to Imperial Beach, Mike said, “You’ve taken a big risk helping me and I’ll never be able to repay you.”

“You would have done the same if you were in my position.”

“I’m not so sure,” Mike sighed.

“I am…I was in a no-win situation. Do I let an innocent man go to prison or do I break the law? I chose you because while we’re military police, we’re Marines first and our code is… we leave no man behind.”

When Mike and First Sergeant Collins reached the upscale home of Raoul Garcia, they found an inconspicuous place to park that offered a view of the property. While one dozed off, the other watched. Seven hours later, Mike nudged Collins. “We’ve got something.”

Raoul was just pulling into his driveway. There were two other men in the Cadillac Escalade with him.

The two Marines slowly got out of the car, opened the trunk, and retrieved their tactical assault gear including military issue pistols. They moved into position.

The three men were sitting in the living room drinking tequila shots. Entering through a backdoor, Mike and Collings got the drop on them before they could reach for their weapons.

Raoul immediately recognized the military policeman. “I should have killed you while I had the chance.”

Collins zip-tied the other two men’s wrists behind their backs then gagged them while Mike kept his pistol at the ready position. When he was finished, Collins showed Raoul the video of him sitting in his truck in front of the Seafood Grille.

“I never thought to check for a camera,” Raoul said. “It doesn’t prove anything, except that I was in the area at the same time.”

“You killed those four men, not me,” Mike said.

“So what if I did? If I go to trial, I’ll deny everything…it’s your word against mine,” Raoul boasted. “And you’re a disgraced cop on the run!”

Collins walked to the front door and opened it. Joaquin Guzman and three of his cartel soldiers walked in.

“Hey Raoul, how are you?” Guzman asked, a phony grin across his face.

“Oh…good. What are you doing here, Joaquin?”

“This Marine came to see me in Tijuana. He figured I might be interested in knowing what really happened. We worked out a little deal.”

“You can’t believe him. He’s a Marine!” Raoul nervously blurted out.

“Anybody who has the guts to face me mano e mano is going to have my respect and cooperation.”

Then Collins replayed Raoul’s admission of guilt he’d recorded with his cellphone.

“Mr. Guzman and myself are going to give you a choice,” Collins said. “You can go with him or you can go with me and admit what you did to the authorities.”

Joaquin pulled out a long-bladed knife and brandished it. “I have something very special planned, so please choose me.”

Raoul’s shoulders slumped and his face turned ashen white. As Collins drove back to North County with Raoul tied and bound in the trunk, Mike turned to his superior and friend. “You are one crazy Marine going to see a drug cartel leader!”

“I figured it was worth the risk. Besides, I didn’t have a lot of options.” Collins grinned mischievously. “I always say that the enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to negotiate.”

“I’m going back to Idaho,” Mike said. “I’m still not quite convinced that this is my get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s in my best interest to operate under the rules of engagement that I’m an escaped murderer until fully exonerated.”

“Can’t blame you for being overly cautious. The system doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to. In this crazy world that we live in, some people don’t like the military and others hate the police. We happen to be both. We swore to serve and protect, but that doesn’t mean it should be a suicide mission.”

“I can’t control what people choose to believe about me, but in a world of uncertainty, I am sure of at least one thing.”

“What’s that?” First Sergeant Collins asked.

“That truth will always be worth the risks.”

Mike leaned back in the passenger seat, took a long breath, closed his eyes, and felt a sense of relief he hadn’t experienced in quite a while.

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