Former Border Patrol agent Gary Brugman recalled his nights in prison. Everyday was a struggle to survive. He would tape thick automotive magazines to his chest and waist. He made a vest out of bundles of old newspapers before going to sleep, hoping it would blunt the penetration of the shanks – makeshift prison knives – that other inmates promised they would use to kill him after discovering that a federal law enforcement officer was being housed along side them.
Brugman, who served eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard and was a distinguished Border Patrol agent up until his conviction, is now asking President Trump to review his case for a pardon. He, along with his attorney, told The Sara Carter Show that the charges and prosecutorial overreach that led to his wrongful conviction in 2002, has been one of the most difficult experiences and biggest battles of his life.
His attorney, Jeff Addicott, who is the Director of the Warrior Defense Project at St. Mary’s University School of Law, San Antonio, Texas, laid out Brugman’s case on The Sara Carter Show. The incident still reverberates among Border Patrol agents, who concede that the fear of being charged for any altercation with an illegal alien attempting to escape custody has had a chilling effect on agents in the field.
“I’ve seen many guys that have unfortunately retired on duty,” Chris Cabrera, BP Union Rep.”They don’t want anything to happen to them while they’re on duty and they pull back from doing their job, out of fear of losing their job or ending up in a court battle.”
Chris Cabrera, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council and Local 3307 in the Rio Grande Valley, could not comment on Brugman’s case directly, but said for years anti-Border Patrol advocates, the politicization of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and false allegations brought against agents in the field by illegal aliens have effected many of the ability for law enforcement officers to do their job.
“We see it on every case level, whether an agent does time, or something that is purely administrative, like accidentally backing into a tree or a regular arrest where it seems like everything was fine but then an illegal alien is making a false allegation or claim against the agent,” said Cabrera. “Then you are guilty until proven different.”
“I’ve seen many guys that have unfortunately retired on duty,” he added. “They don’t want anything to happen to them while they’re on duty and they pull back from doing their job, out of fear of losing their job or ending up in a court battle.”
Brugman spent two years in five different federal prisons after a federal prosecutor charged him with a civil rights violation of an illegal immigrant for pushing the non-compliant man down with his foot into a sitting position on Jan. 14, 2001. Several weeks after the incident Brugman was stripped of his firearm and put on desk duty for 18 months without explanation.
Brugman, who is Puerto Rican descent from Brooklyn, New York and fluent in Spanish, recalls telling the men in Spanish to sit down. They just wouldn’t comply, he recalls.
He is still haunted by everything that happened during that apprehension and his stint in prison. He believes he could be pardoned if Trump could look at his case, which is now before the Office of the Pardon Attorney for review and recommendation to the White House.
Addicott, who is representing Brugman pro bono due to his service in the Coast Guard, is convinced after reviewing the evidence and circumstances surrounding the Brugman’s case that a presidential pardon is appropriate. Brugman’s pardon was filed over a year ago, in 2018 by Addicott.
“He loves this country,” said Addicott. “And clearly, this is not the type of person that deserves what has been done to him. And if anybody deserves a pardon-Gary deserves a pardon.”
It was an “unjust conviction and grossly disproportionate to what Gary did,” Addicott said.
The Texas lawyer, now law professor, has a successfully career advocating for other veterans and soldiers accused of wrongdoing. He is a former Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer that retired from the Army a Lieutenant Colonel.
He knows that some people facing a jury either had a bad defense or exculpatory evidence was withheld from a jury. One successful pardon brought to President Trump by Addicott was Navy sailor Kristian Saucier. Trump personally reviewed the case and granted a pardon to Saucier, who was charged for taking personal photos on the nuclear submarine he was assigned to last year. Saucier served a year in prison for ‘gross negligence’ because photos were forbidden on the classified sub. It became a national story because at the time the FBI chose not charge Hillary Clinton with sending classified government emails to her unclassified server.
Life after prison is just as difficult, especially as a felon. Saucier could only find a job driving a garbage truck with his felony record at the time. Brugman has struggled for years to make ends meet.
This reporter has known Brugman since 2006, meeting him after he contacted me during my time covering the case of former Border Patrol Agents Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Ramos and Jose Compean, who charged and convicted to 12 and 13 years respectively for an altercation with a drug dealer along the Texas border. Both men’s sentences were commuted by President George Bush on his last day in office after two years of reporting revealed that exculpatory evidence and a bad defense led to their convictions.
The Night Everything Changed
Brugman was stationed at Eagles Pass, Texas, an area known for high narcotics and human trafficking. It was also an area where Mexican drug cartels frequently crossed into the United States and threatened agents working in the field. Typically agents were outnumbered and large groups of illegal migrants, roughly 700 to 800 would cross each shift, Brugman said.
He recalled first joining the Border Patrol and the pride he felt defending the country, he said gave so much to his family who immigrated from Puerto Rico to find a better life.
“I was at thirty-one years old when I went to the academy and it was challenging but it was it was so great because at the time I had the feeling that I had done I had achieved everything that I wanted to do,” said Brugman. “I had succeeded.”
That would all change. On that night in January, 2001 Brugman and several young agents working with him out in the field were responded to a group of illegal migrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico.
“We chased a group of about 15 illegal aliens,” Brugman recalled. “I ran after them for about a mile and a half the whole time yelling for them to stop in Spanish,” said Brugman.
Eventually, Brugman caught up with the group, but said some individuals refused to sit on the ground, and he felt they posed a threat to the agent standing in front of them.
Brugman described the encounter, “So I ran up to the scene and I did what I was trained I put my hand on my weapon and I used my leg as an extension of my arm and I said (sit down in Spanish) and I pushed them down both of them from the squatting to the sitting position knocked them on their butts.”
From there, the illegal migrants were transported by border patrol and “that was the end of that… but it wasn’t,” he said.
In that moment Brugman thought “this is where I’m gonna die.”
Six weeks later, Brugman responded to another group of seven illegal migrants attempting to smuggle narcotics. It wouldn’t be a usual apprehension.
When Brugman and the other agents approached, the group “scattered.” At that point, Brugman and the agents gave chase, running through the prickly brush and attempting to arrest all the smugglers who had crossed into the U.S. with the narcotics.
Brugman reached two of the men and was jumped by one of them. The other smuggler got away.
“He body slammed me on the ground,” recalled Brugman. “He was sitting on top of me. I was flat on the ground. He had me by the neck and he was sitting on top of me and he had my hand pinned down and he was choking me and I had him by the collar trying to keep pressure off so he couldn’t lay all his weight on my throat and I couldn’t get him off me.”
In that moment Brugman thought “this is where I’m gonna die.” To this day, he says remembers every detail even the moment he contemplated pulling out his gun but he didn’t.
“But I couldn’t do any of that because I was losing the fight,” he said. “Had I pulled my gun he would have taken it from me, so I got my hand loose. I hit him on the side of the head in the temple knocked him off to the side, rolled him over, so now I’m on top of him and to make a long story short I ended up breaking his nose because he was reaching for things on my gun belt and I had batons, pepper spray, handcuffs that could be used to gouge your eyes out.”
The illegal migrant was sentenced to 57 months in prison and Brugman walked away breathing a sigh of relief.
Three Weeks Later
Things began to shift for Brugman shortly after the second altercation on the border. Brugman was stripped of his frontline duties, along with his gun.
He recalls not knowing why and his supervisors didn’t give him a direct answer. Three weeks later, after being on suspension, he found himself at the center of an investigation.
Not for the struggle against the drug dealer but for the first altercation. One of the men he pushed down with his foot was charging him with violating his civil rights. It was hell, recalls Brugman, who didn’t have enough money for a good defense lawyer and struggled to understand why he was being charged.
Even more unbelievable, said Brugman, the prosecution allowed a drug dealer to testify against him. It was the illegal alien from the second altercation who fought him. The man, who was in jail, told prosecutors Brugman was heavy handed with him and broke his nose in the struggle.
The case against Brugman was not tried in El Paso but moved to Austin. Austin jury’s tend to be tougher on Border Patrol agents, his attorney said.
“Next thing I know I’m going to trial for the first incident of pushing down a noncompliant alien and I couldn’t understand why because I did everything right with this guy,” said Brugman. “I was like, I followed every procedure, he’s alive, not injured. I did everything right. Ends up, I was being prosecuted for the first guy that I had pushed on the ground for violating his ‘civil rights.'”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Brugman was convicted and served two years in the federal prison system. It was a shock said Brugman, who he had served and protected for 29 years.
“I’m tired of being a felon,” said Brugman.
Fighting back tears, Brugman said, “I figured if I had a chance for a pardon now, I mean, I know that if he actually just looked at the case, if he just looked at it he would probably sign off on it, and you know what, even if he even if he didn’t I just him to I would just want to get it to his attention so that he can see it and make his own decision.”
If he had finished his service, Brugman would’ve qualified for retirement in February 2018, so with a pardon, he could at least finish his service to this country as “a reserve police officer, a reserve deputy, or a constable.”
He says Trump is his “only chance” to a promising future.
Jennie Taer contributed to this report.