Jailed For 3 Months In Mexico, U.S. Marine Reservist Gets Hearing

Andrew Tahmooressi maintains he took a wrong turn and mistakenly drove into Tijuana with his guns, which are legally registered in the U.S. The case has inflamed cross border tensions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to another source of tension at the border. A trial began yesterday for a former Marine, who spent the last three months in a Mexican jail. He drove into Tijuana with guns in his car. The Marine, now a reservist, says he took a wrong turn and didn't mean to cross the border. Amy Isackson has the story.

AMY ISACKSON, BYLINE: Last March, Andrew Tahmooressi says he made a wrong turn near the U.S.-Mexico border, which landed him at the crossing to Tijuana. When he realized he was at the point of no return and was about to drive into Mexico, he says he tried to flag down a Mexican Customs agent. But he says she waved him across the border. Mexican Customs agents arrested Tahmooressi when they found three loaded guns in his car. He's been in prison since. Wednesday, he had his first hearing in Mexican court. Fernando Benitez is his attorney. He spoke to reporters after the eight-hour closed-door session.

FERNANDO BENITEZ: He had never planned to cross into Mexico. And he explains step-by-step how he took that fatal wrong turn and why it was a mistake.

ISACKSON: Tahmooressi served two tours in Afghanistan. He'd recently moved from Florida to San Diego to get treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Following his arrest, he's become a cause celeb. More than 120,000 people signed a petition to the White House to demand President Obama help free Tahmooressi. The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Hillary Clinton and dozens of Congressmen have declared their support for him. Tahmooressi's case has been a mainstay on Fox News. The network aired an entire hour-long special on him on the 4th of July. It featured Tahmooressi's friends, who served with him in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: A piece of me is in Mexico right now. And I won't rest until he's home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: This is a big deal. I would never let one of my Marines get treated as if they were in a POW camp on a nation that's supposed to be our ally.

ISACKSON: Mexico was well aware of the controversy. In a rare move, Mexico's Attorney General's office publicly outlined its case against Tahmooressi. It emphasized that he was carrying an enormous amount of ammunition - 400 rounds, that his guns are illegal in Mexico and that they were loaded and at-the-ready. Ariel Moutsatsos says the spokesman for Mexico's Embassy in Washington, D.C.

ARIEL MOUTSATSOS: You enforce law here and what we are doing, in the case of Mr. Tahmooressi and in all other cases in which there is a criminal charge against someone, is simply to enforce the law.

ISACKSON: Since Tahmooressi was arrested, his actions haven't helped his defense. He tried to escape from prison. When that failed, he broke a light bulb and stabbed himself in the neck. He's changed his story several times about what led to his arrest and fired two attorneys. Tahmooressi's mother, Jill, was not allowed until Wednesday's hearing. But the judge gave her 20 minutes with her son afterwards. She says he's doing better.

ANDREW TAHMOORESSI: He's strong. He's confident. We're optimistic about the future.

ISACKSON: Tahmooressi's attorney Benitez hopes to get his client off on technicalities.

BENITEZ: The order to search his conveyance is dated three days before his crossing of the border. Number two, there are 11 pages missing from the record, which nobody seems to know what they say.

ISACKSON: The list continues. Under Mexican law, the judge decides whether Tahmooressi is guilty. The next hearing is on August 4. Tahmooressi could face seven years in prison, if convicted. Since Tahmooressi's arrest U.S. border officials have installed a new freeway sign after the last U.S. exit. It shows in big letters where drivers can make a last-ditch U-turn before hitting Tijuana. For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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