This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Military vet charged with pharmacy holdups blames drug addiction
John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007
Sargent Binkley says trying to escape the nightmares that haunted him from his military service ultimately led him to a San Mateo County jail cell.
The former Army Ranger captain from Los Altos said he was tormented by the smell of decomposing bodies in a mass grave in Bosnia, and the face of a teenage boy he gunned down during a raid on a marijuana plantation in Honduras.
Trying to deal with the trauma, Binkley said he became addicted to painkillers that military doctors prescribed for a fractured pelvis and dislocated hip. Now he is charged with robbing two pharmacies at gunpoint in 2006 - one in San Mateo County and the other in Santa Clara County - not of money, but of drugs.
"The only goal of my life was to obtain those, and I knew where they were," Binkley, 32, said in a jailhouse interview in Redwood City. "It got to the point of desperation and almost life and death."
Now, the Eagle Scout and West Point graduate, who had no previous criminal record, is looking at a possible minimum sentence of 12 years under a 1997 state gun-crime law. San Mateo County is willing to consider a plea deal for a lesser term, but not Santa Clara County, where Binkley has already pleaded no contest and prosecutors say leniency isn't warranted for someone who committed two armed robberies.
Binkley's defenders say his case raises questions about the quality of military medical care, the flexibility of California sentencing laws and the variability of prosecutorial attitudes from one county to the next.
"It never occurred to me in the state of California that you would have two almost separate legal systems, depending on what county you're in, with different prosecutors and different philosophies," said Binkley's father, Ed Binkley, who turned his son in to police March 6, 2006, after learning of the robberies. "I find it really bizarre."
Santa Clara County prosecutors say there's not much mystery to their approach - 12 years in prison is the state minimum for someone who uses a gun in a holdup.
"His life history and the tragedy that he's suffered do not outweigh his criminal behavior to the extent that he should be treated differently than somebody else in a similar situation," said Deputy District Attorney Rob Baker. "It ultimately comes down to fairness."
Steve Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney in San Mateo County, said Binkley has an impressive background that helped persuade prosecutors there to consider a lesser sentence. But he called Santa Clara County's position completely reasonable.
"In California, every county has the right to elect a D.A. who will bring a philosophy that the electorate deems appropriate," Wagstaffe said. "The voters vote on a philosophy. There's nothing wrong with that."
Binkley is charged in the early morning holdups of two Walgreens pharmacies in 2006 - one in Mountain View on Jan. 20, the other in San Carlos on March 3.
In the first robbery, Binkley ordered an assistant manager to kneel behind the counter at gunpoint and gave the pharmacists a list of painkillers to fill, the pharmacist, Dennis Pinheiro, wrote in a letter to the court in which he sought leniency for Binkley.
"He was calm in demeanor and did not use any physical or verbal force," Pinheiro wrote. "I did as he said and never felt highly threatened, but of course did not want to find out if he could be" violent.
In the San Carlos robbery, Binkley allegedly demanded that two pharmacy technicians fill a bag with painkillers, then left with the drugs, saying: "Ladies, have a good night."
In both cases, Binkley contends the handgun he used was not loaded, according to a psychiatric evaluation and court documents filed by his attorney, Chuck Smith.
Regardless of whether the gun was loaded, Binkley's alleged crimes are treated the same under legislation passed in 1997 known as the "10-20-life" law.
Under that statute, anyone convicted of using a firearm during any of a host of serious felonies faces a minimum of 10 years in prison on top of the punishment for the crime. For armed robbery, the base minimum is two years.
"You are trying to stop a particular crime that is so serious that you have to use mandatory minimum" sentencing laws, said Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer who became a driving force behind California's three-strikes and 10-20-life laws after a paroled ex-convict murdered his 18-year-old daughter.
"A dilution of the law diminishes its effectiveness," Reynolds said when asked about Binkley's case. "People are damn tired of gun violence and that people use guns to solve their problems, whatever they are. ... I feel very bad for the man who did this, but you can't support your drug habit with armed robbery."
Binkley's supporters see the law as excessive.
"What he did was wrong. Should he pay something? Absolutely. But is he worth rehabilitating? Absolutely," said Tim Crane, 32, a former major in the Special Forces who did two combat tours in Afghanistan and has known Binkley since West Point.
"He is somebody that not only as an individual but as society we say, 'We are going to train you to watch after our sons and daughters and trust their lives to you in combat,' " Crane said. "Would I trust this person to lead my son in combat? To this day I still say yes. Sarge can look after my son in combat any day of the week."
Binkley grew up in a prosperous Los Altos family and was 18 when he enrolled at West Point after high school.
"This is going to sound almost a little canned, but it's actually the truth," Binkley said as he sat in an orange jail uniform. "We come from a nice family. I had a great background. But growing up, I was very patriotic. I wanted to join the United States Army to make a difference for this country."
He was sent to Bosnia in 1999, where his unit guarded the unearthed mass graves of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys who had been massacred four years earlier by ethnic Serb forces at Srebrenica.
U.S. soldiers helped exhume the bodies and guarded the site from stick-wielding Serbs who hurled bottles and bricks at the soldiers, Binkley said.
"We had these half-drunk Serbians bragging about how they shoved the evil Muslims out of the area and they got what they deserved," Binkley said. "I just think it's disgusting. ... It wasn't a battle. These were kids. These were old men."
Binkley was reassigned in 2001 to the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, a hub for U.S. humanitarian and anti-drug efforts in the region that is staffed by both American and Honduran forces.
After one mission against a marijuana plantation, Binkley said, he watched as a Honduran officer executed three of his own men, according to his psychiatric evaluation. Binkley believes the men were suspected of helping the drug runners, but he was told by a civilian U.S. official not to ask questions, his father said.
On another mission, Binkley said, he opened fire on two armed security guards for drug traffickers as they drove toward him in a Jeep. Both were killed; one of them turned out to be a young teenage boy.
"I can't get that out of my mind at all," Binkley said. "It was flat-out too hard for me to justify. I can't imagine I'm an airborne Ranger and I'm doing this."
Binkley has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his psychiatric evaluation, his attorney and his family.
The trauma became more intense after he was medicated for a fractured pelvis and dislocated hip he suffered in 2001 in Honduras, Binkley said.
After the injury appeared to heal, Binkley was prescribed Percocet for the continuing pain. He says he wasn't told the painkillers could be addictive, and doctors refilled the prescription at least 15 times.
Binkley was honorably discharged in December 2002. He got a job in Los Angeles as a junior executive for Neutrogena and took painkillers nightly.
Ultimately, his drug use increased, and he lost the job and moved in with his parents. Throughout, military and Department of Veterans Affairs doctors could find nothing wrong with his hip, Binkley's father said.
More than two years after he left the Army, Binkley's parents took him to a sports medicine specialist who used a high-resolution MRI scan to detect small tears in the cartilage surrounding his hip. Outpatient surgery fixed the problem, his father said.
After that, the pain faded away and the VA prescriptions stopped, but Binkley said he was hooked on the painkillers.
His attempts to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder were stymied by two years' worth of paperwork problems between the VA and the Army, his father said.
"He's having unbelievable nightmares at home, and the only way he can knock himself out is 30 or 40 Percocets," Ed Binkley said. "By the time we can get his papers to the Veterans Administration, he's been in jail for a year. It reminds me so much of the novel 'Catch-22.' I really am waiting to turn the corner in a hallway someplace and run into Major Major Major."
In a separate case, two veterans' rights groups sued in San Francisco in July seeking to force the federal government to overhaul care for hundreds of thousands of veterans, accusing the VA of delaying or denying treatment for combat-related disabilities, including PTSD.
Kerri Childress, spokeswoman for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, said she could not address Binkley's case because he had not signed a confidentiality waiver sent to his attorney.
"When he has accessed VA care, we have given him everything that was appropriate at the time and really have cared about his health," Childress said.
Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County prosecutor, rejected the idea that Binkley's addiction was the fault of the military.
"I do not buy that is was the government that got him addicted," Wagstaffe said. "That's a type of victimology that I don't subscribe to in this case."
Binkley, who sits in jail on $100,000 bail, concedes that he deserves some penalty. "I do need to be punished on some level," Binkley said.
But he added, "This wasn't to make money or better myself in any other way. This was to feed an addiction."