MEXICO CITY—Amir Mirza Hekmati was arrested in 2012 while visiting his sick grandmother in Iran. Terrified and tortured, the former U.S. Marine—fluent in both Persian and Arabic as well as English—confessed under duress to being a CIA spy and was sentenced to death.
After secret talks during the Obama administration, which negotiated the prisoner swap that led to clemency for seven Iranians incarcerated in the U.S. in exchange for the release of four prisoners—including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, an incarcerated Christian pastor, and Hekmati—the former Marine, was finally returned to the United States in early 2016.
Two years earlier, 60-year-old former talk-show host Montel Williams, seated in a boat on a lake in Tennessee, had sent a video message to Hekmati. “Hey Amir, my friend,” said Montel, “Everywhere I go in this country people stop me all the time and ask me how you’re doing, and ask me when you’re coming home. So, I thought maybe, today, I’d give you a little taste of what home is—what you fought for, what you defended.
“You’re coming home, my friend. I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my heart. You’re coming home really soon,” Montel promised. “Every single person in this country owes you a debt, my friend. And I’m not going to stop until they pay it.”
Montel repeatedly made forceful, and at times tearful, public pleas on Hekmati’s behalf on national television, demanding action from the U.S. government and support from the American people to #FreeAmir and donate to a fund set up to aid his legal defense. By all accounts, Montel’s was a noble and successful mission. And this January, a year after his release, Hekmati thanked him for his role in fighting for the former Marine’s freedom. But this was not the only time Montel took up the cause of incarcerated Marines, and not all of his efforts have led to such a happy ending.
Tyler James Yeager, a 39-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps Sniper, was arrested across the border from San Diego in Tijuana on April 23. He was taken into custody that Sunday afternoon, after a string of home burglaries made him public enemy number one among local American expats living in the sleepy beachside communities that dot the Baja coastline.
Along the scenic route between Tijuana and Rosarito—a town known mostly as a feasting place, with famous lobster dinners and Spring Break beer binges—Yeager had made himself an absolute nuisance.
Over the course of several weeks this spring, multiple homes inside the partially gated communities here—many of whose residents are semi-retired Americans, part-time real-estate vendors, and the like—were broken into.
These expats often spend hours on end gossiping with neighbors and drinking at the local watering hole—aptly called Plan B. There’s not much going on here—no Plan A, as it were.
So, when word got out that there was a petty criminal on the loose, local residents with plenty of spare time on their hands and little in the way of external stimulation, found the hunt that ensued quite thrilling.
By sheer small-world, wild coincidence, I happened to be staying in one of these seaside communities and saw as neighbors who had never before spoken to each other came together for a common single-minded purpose: Get Yeager.
Dozens of people from the surrounding communities mocked up Wanted posters featuring Yeager’s tweaked-out face. Sadly, the decorated Marine had become addicted to methamphetamine and severed contact with several family members before allegedly resorting to thievery for a fix. “BEWARE!” read the posters, “James Tyler Yeager continues to break into our homes.
“Call ‘The Guards’”—it read—“if you see him.”
It was mid-April when the hunt began. And the local expats wanted Yeager behind bars. Immediately. Before he could strike again.
But strike again he would. Repeatedly. And now, they fear, he’s returned once more to vandalize their homes.
They blame Montel Williams, the 1990s talk show host, of all people.
Nine days before Yeager’s arrest in Mexico, the expats created a Facebook group—To Catch a Thief.
There, they posted surveillance photos of Yeager’s multiple run-ins with the law, shared information about recent sightings, and posted tips on his presumed whereabouts.
“We need to work together to stop him,” said the group’s creator in an early post.
“I have only seen him physically one time over six months ago,” said one local resident. “I thought I saw him at [the only local] Walmart but wasn’t sure… I would look for a sleeve tattoo, meaning a tattoo down his arm, and bandage on one of his hands… will check on the facial hair and get back to you.”
It was a neighborhood watch, on steroids.
But the residents would be repeatedly thwarted by Yeager, the highly skilled Marine, whose tattoos—the words “U.S. Marine” and “Sniper” inked into his left arm—showed his pride for the job he once performed dutifully.
“I think I saw him yesterday in front of my next door neighbor’s house,” said one local, in the group, seven days before his arrest. “I cannot be sure the guy who was hanging around my neighbor’s front door was him or not. He was evasive and took off with another guy when I asked what he was doing.”
He added, “My neighbor is a little strange and we don’t talk much.”
The sightings would continue, as would the string of break-ins, but Yeager would continue to get away.“Last night when we got home, the guards were chasing him. Apparently he had broken into some woman’s home while she was there and scared her half to death,” one woman wrote. “Many neighbors, including my son, were in on the chase but the thief escaped.”
This would be just one of multiple failed on-foot pursuits. It would also be the first time there was mention of a gun. He had, apparently, pointed a shotgun at one of the community guards.
I’d noticed the posters and some of the posts online. And across several Facebook groups about Baja that I belong to—occasionally useful sources of information on unreported homicides—there was discussion of Yeager.
Three days before the arrest, a few local Americans were patrolling the cobblestone streets with their dogs. They were on the hunt once more, but apparently Yeager had just managed to evade the guards yet again.
He “broke into another home in plain daylight,” and this time was “no longer alone,” locals said.
“My neighbor told me they left drug paraphernalia behind in the home,” one woman wrote.
“Yep, police came. I heard about it,” another confirmed. “I had a call... from a friend that seen 2 people chasing someone… He was seen running away today.” Later, he was spotted at the beach.
“There was only James by himself around 11 a.m. when we chased him around the community, police came and he just weaved his way through several properties to get away,” a neighbor added.
“Damn James!!! He needs to go!!!” replied another. “We will need to celebrate when they catch him!!”
“I was there for the morning chase,” said another neighbor. “The guards and police did their best but he really knows the angles here.”
Then the lawyer for another adjacent community’s homeowners association posted in one of the groups: “On the evening of Thursday, 4/20/2017… at approx. 11:15pm, he was spotted and a foot pursuit took place to apprehend him. He fled over the south end fence injuring himself on the barb wire.
“Waiting for confirmation of his arrest,” he said.
But that confirmation didn’t come. And by April 22, the panic had grown wilder.
“They just posted on another page how he almost killed a man in San Miguel (the area in the entrance to Ensenada) a bit over a month ago,” one resident posted. That same day, in the early afternoon, locals said Yeager was being actively chased up cobblestone streets through two of the communities, but they were unable to catch him.
“CONVICTED THIEF STILL AT LARGE!!!” a resident posted, sharing mugshots from previous incidents that occurred stateside. “He’s a confirmed convict—sexual assault, DUI, and possibly drugs. BEWARE EVERYONE.”
“It keeps getting worse and scarier!!!” one wrote. By then, reports of previous burglaries were also becoming bolder.
“He is a desperate ruthless SOB! He broke into my house on Easter evening that is super well lit and has security cameras. Cut the phone line and broke thru the wall in the back side of the house and wreaked havoc!” After a chase, they said, the residents were once again thwarted.
“The other day we spotted him, he dumped his bike and went to the beach... He ran… He disappeared, we looked everywhere,” one man said. “I believe he lives in several homes and has places to duck all over.” The tally of crimes for which Yeager supposedly was responsible had begun to quickly balloon: “25+ HOUSES ROBBED. Cars stolen.”
But he was also now locally suspected of murder: “Remember The Crime that has not been solved here... for all we know this guy is responsible... or at least capable of it!!”
Within the groups, suspicions were high, and locals were also sharing anecdotes about how to thwart other criminals. One shared post screamed in all caps: “If you are driving at night and eggs are thrown at your windshield, do not stop to check your car, do not operate the wipers and do not spray any water because eggs mixed with water become milky, and block your vision up to 92.5%, and you are then forced to stop beside the road and become a victim of these criminals […] These are desperate times and these are unsavory individuals who will take desperate measures to get what they want.”
Then finally, just as the neighborhood watch had reached the peak of panic—“We just notified the FBI,” one wrote—the most active member of the group broke the good news.
“He was apprehended today by [Mexican] Federal Police!!” she wrote—adding the clapping hands, thumbs up, okie dokie, and hallelujah emojis.
“We were all afraid to leave our homes and also afraid to return at night and maybe find him or anyone else in the home... it was scary!!! … We are so blessed that this convict was finally caught.”
“We did it everyone,” said a neighbor, sharing a photo of the regional newspaper El Mexicano, which featured a picture of a stoned-looking Yeager, under the subheading: “He Murdered Two Little Old Grannies.”
Despite accusations he had participated in dozens of crimes, including a few murders, and the dozens of local expats wildly speculating, commenting, and sharing information across multiple Facebook groups, when it came time to file police reports only one local expat showed up.
Mariah Metter’s home was broken into twice in the span of one week. “I came home after the first time, and apparently he had made himself at home and was cooking and eating,” she told me. “There were not a lot of damages, other than a broken window.
“The second time there was a lot more damage,” she said, adding that he’d ransacked the whole house, took a shower, and left wearing her husband’s clothes. He showed cunning, despite his seemingly crippling addiction.
“He put large screws through all the doors to stop anybody from opening them from the outside,” which gave him enough time to escape through a window in the back of the house, she said. He also left behind a few personal belongings, including meth-related drug paraphernalia.
After his arrest, he was photographed next to a shotgun, allegedly the gun he carried during the burglaries—a claim his lawyer denies.
A week after his arrest, as the locals were still patting each other on the back, the first bad news broke.
“This thief broke into our homes and terrorized our community,” one local wrote. “He was arrested and Montel Williams, allegedly, paid for his defense and got him out of jail.”
The expats were outraged, and all had an opinion. They spammed Montel’s Facebook page with criticism—posts that were later deleted by his team.“We have no choice than to arm ourselves,” one wrote. “Hopefully the law will be applied in the same manner if the police catch you with a gun.”
Another said, “I feel terrible he didn’t TRIP AND FALL OFF THE FUCKING CLIFF!!”
Montel’s role in this case was to reach out to Tijuana attorney Fernando Benitez, who then agreed to take Yeager’s case.
“When Yeager’s statement was being taken, there was no translator available. So they picked a prison guard at random who used to work at a swap meet somewhere and spoke decent English,” Benitez explained over the phone. “But he isn’t trained in any real capacity to provide this service. His English is maybe good enough to order dinner at a restaurant, but he wouldn’t be able to go into technical details and explain important legal points to Yeager.
“Furthermore, he is inherently on the prosecutor’s side, so in no way would his assistance have been objective,” Benitez said. “The procedure that’s in place should be followed by the authorities. The rule is to first seek out a trained expert. If none is available, they must request one from one of the public universities. If one isn’t available, they can seek out someone from a private university. Again, if one isn’t available, there are plenty of bilingual lawyers who can do the job. This is a border city, after all.” According to Benitez, the authorities claimed that they were short on time, and in a hurry.
“When Americans are arrested in Mexico, the first thing they usually imagine is something like [the film] Midnight Express—they think they’ll be tortured, raped, that something horrible will happen. The thought isn’t completely justified, but it also isn’t entirely implausible,” he said. “He was vulnerable, and this isn’t his country.” Benitez said the authorities are likely to look at Yeager and see only “an undesirable—a drug addict” and invoke the “reverse Trump discourse,” referring to the president’s comments about Mexico “not sending their best.” President Donald Trump, while on the campaign trail claimed Mexicans who enter the U.S. are “rapists” and “murderers,” if you’ll recall.
Locals had already begun accusing Yeager of committing both sordid crimes, in addition to the robberies.
Yeager alleged that he was beaten by Mexican police, after his arrest. Images show Yeager had blood in his hair, but officially the police say he cut his head while ducking under a barbed wire fence, which is in keeping with his previous behavior of outrunning his pursuers.
“The Mexican justice system is in it’s infancy, and we are just beginning to switch from an archaic, near-feudal system,” Benitez said. “Part of my job is often based in exploiting the procedural failings that our authorities commit for the sake of wrapping things up quickly.” On April 30, the judge was forced to throw Yeager’s case out because he hadn’t been provided with an adequate translator. His release was ordered as a result of this technicality, which for Benitez amounts to yet another success.
“If the [authorities] continue to make mistakes, and are uninterested in following the strict procedures that are in place, the prosecutors’ cases will continue to fall apart whenever capable attorneys intervene,” he said. “It’s their choice, whether or not to commit to doing things correctly.”
“Damn,” an expat wrote in To Catch a Thief. “So much for all the effort that went into catching him. Now what? Does anyone have any ideas? Are we just supposed to wait to see and see if he comes back here to start all over again?”
“Unbelievable,” said another. “This guy will be back by Tuesday smoking ice and doing whatever he wants. Shameful.”
But Yeager was not immediately released. He was transferred from Tijuana’s horrific La Mesa prison, to an immigration detention center where he sat for more than a week—nine days after his freedom was ordered, his lawyer and Montel’s team said.
Montel’s tiny team was monitoring the transfer, and claimed Yeager was supposed to be delivered to U.S. officials at the border. But, things didn’t go according to plan.
Benitez is a rather high-profile attorney in Tijuana. He represented the so-called Affluenza Teen, Ethan Couch, who disappeared into Mexico more than a year ago, after killing four people in a drunken car crash. His lawyer in the U.S. argued he was “too rich” to know any better.
Benitez said, “I know nobody likes Ethan, but no matter how repugnant one thinks his argument or actions were, those deemed odious deserve legal counsel, too. I don’t have the luxury of participating in a popularity contest. If someone needs my help they get it.
“At the end of the day, [Couch] desisted from his appeal in Mexico and offered himself back to the U.S. to serve his time,” Benitez said. “People may not like it, but we’ve got to be fair.”
Benitez first met Montel, and his PR man-turned-political director Jonathan Franks, in 2014. This was the first and only other time Montel intervened in the case of a U.S. Marine jailed in Mexico.
Reserve Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi was arrested that March for driving from San Diego into Tijuana with a truck full of improperly stored and loaded high-power weapons, along with a stockpile of ammo—a big no-no in Mexico, but also a violation of California law.
His case, too, was a tricky one that drew intense criticism locally, among both nationals and local expats—even sparking a debate about national sovereignty as Montel and other high-profile figures like then-Secretary of State John Kerry began demanding his return.
Tahmooressi was broadly accused and suspected of gunrunning—bringing arms into Mexico to sell to nationals. But his family and his lawyer, Benitez, told me at the time that Tahmooressi was confused, recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and had entered the country “accidentally” after making a wrong turn at the border.
“He absolutely, emphatically, would never have sold his weapons,” his mother, Jill, told me back in 2014. “He needed those weapons. Those were his self-defense. He had documented hyper-vigilance.
“We observed escalating symptoms of PTSD,” she said, which is why he ended up in San Diego, seeking treatment at the local Veterans Affairs hospital.
“We told him, ‘You’ve got to get professional help, you don’t have this under control,’” and he was diagnosed with PTSD at the local VA, two weeks before entering Mexico with a truck full of guns.
According to his mother, he had been “having hunter-prey syndrome—he was the prey.”
I listened to our phone calls this week, once more, and compared the similarities—and differences—between Tahmooressi and Yeager, who is accused of robbing more than a dozen homes in Baja, armed with a busted shotgun.
“He was a combat infantry Marine,” Tahmooressi’s mother said. He had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “When you’re a Marine, if you carry your gun that’s no different than a secretary who carries a pen or a carpenter who carries a hammer. It’s what made him feel secure, so to me it was justified. I understood it.”
While locked in the La Mesa penitentiary, the same prison where Yeager was imprisoned earlier this month, Tahmooressi’s sanity was questioned when he attempted to slash his throat with a broken lightbulb.
“I considered it a highly intellectual, strategic move to get into an even safer part of the jail,” Jill said. “His instinct was to just stay alive. He was placed in the general populace in La Mesa, and seemingly was going to be raped, tortured and executed by the hitmen that were in the cell with him that night.
“He did what any Marine would do,” she said: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” This perceived suicide attempt landed him in the infirmary, away from his cellmates.
It was thanks to Montel that the Tahmooressi family was put in touch with Benitez who successfully argued for his release, so he could return to the U.S. to continue treatment for PTSD.
Montel tearfully testified before a congressional subcommittee in the weeks before the Marine’s release, seated alongside Tahmooressi’s mother, Jill.
“Thirty-thousand new cases of traumatic brain injury occur every year in our services,” Montel testified. “We currently have over 600,000 veterans suffering from residual symptoms.
“I have scars on my brain that are synonymous with concussive brain injury,” he said, listing symptoms like “emotional debility, sometimes depression, sometimes hyper-vigilance.”
“I can walk in this hallway in Congress where I’m most protected and be afraid to walk in that bathroom. This is what these young men live through,” he said. “Bring him home and let’s treat him appropriately.”
While butchering Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s last name, Montel demanded then-President Barack Obama “Pick up the phone!” and “Make the call!” to the Mexican government, to order the Marine’s release.
By the time he regained his freedom on Halloween 2014, seven months after he was first jailed, Tahmooressi had been through a torturous ordeal, and his mental health seemingly deteriorated further. Sources close to the family said that, upon release, he was paranoid and confused by a set of wireless headphones that he briefly suspected were some sort of alien communication device.
A year after his arrest in Mexico, he was arrested once more in Georgia, for a reckless DUI. Last year, he was arrested, yet again, this time for pot possession in Indiana, where he was handed a month-long sentence in a county jail.
“I still represent the Tahmooressis,” said Montel’s representative, Jonathan Franks, when we talked on the phone Thursday night. “We are glad that all of his arrests in the U.S. since then have been nickel-and-dime pot charges, basically... But we got lucky with Andrew [Tahmooressi],” he said. “We had resources then, and pressure on the American side helped us drive him out.”
This was three years ago, but now semi-retired Montel’s resources are finite, and it’s essentially just him and Franks, who said he does this advocacy work largely without compensation.
So, this conversation over the phone with Franks just before midnight on Thursday had an air of panic about it. What the hell happened to Yeager and where is he? Yeager’s sister insists that he is back in Mexico.
“Whenever we intervene we usually try to keep it pretty quiet, but in this particular situation quiet isn’t called for,” Franks said. “We don’t want to get a phone call in the middle of the night, which is why we are putting out the alert.”
Just as the furious American expats who Yeager terrorized for weeks feared, Yeager is back on the streets here in Mexico and free to continue his crime spree.
“Nobody ever thought it was a good idea to say, ‘Hey Mexico, release him and put him back on the street,’” says Franks. “The whole idea was to have him confined in the United States, and to have him put back on his medication to treat his PTSD, at which point he is not a threat to anyone.”
Though, when pressed, he conceded, “Yes, he’s a drug addict as well.”
“What’s interesting is that this time around we knew the system much better and really thought we had it better planned,” Franks explained. “There’s a fairly high impunity rate in the Mexican justice system, so even if he had been convicted, apparently, he could bail until he could pay his way out, so the thought was, let’s get him back, let’s get him sane, and have him face the warrant he already has in the American justice system.” Yeager has an outstanding warrant in Montana stemming from court fines related to a sexual assault charge from a few years back. Franks explained the “sexual” part of the charge came as a result of “a drunken shoving match with his significant other, in which she lands on the ground, and it happens to be sexual assault because of where specifically he pushed her—in the chest.” That domestic disturbance landed Yeager “in jail for two days” but, Franks said, “It wasn’t a rape or anything like that.”
Franks received word from Yeager’s sister Tracy on Thursday afternoon, hours before our mile-a-minute phone call. She said Yeager was now back in Mexico. Although she also claimed, weeks ago on May 9, that Yeager had returned to San Diego.
“I have to think about what I just did to my brother,” Tracy told me late Thursday night, referring to sounding the alarm on his whereabouts. “This is tough for me. I can’t stand what my brother has done. I love him, I just don’t like what he is doing.
“I sent him money and I could hear the panic in his voice,” she said. Those funds were picked up at a Mexican Walmart, confirming that indeed Yeager is in Mexico. “I will not send him any more money. I did it so maybe he won’t rob people and I told him that.”
Franks, sounding worried, explained that “that wasn’t part of the deal.”
He said Yeager was contacted on Thursday afternoon, confirmed he back was in Mexico, and sounded “delusionally logical.”
According to Franks, consulate employees had also confirmed on May 9 that Mexican immigration officials had delivered Yeager to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the local point of entry.
“We had asked CBP to please hold on to him, and have an ambulance take him to the VA, since his family didn’t have the resources to get down there. And he made it through border patrol, but it was a good six or seven hours until we found him,” Franks said, explaining that Yeager’s sister had visually confirmed he was back in the U.S. after an online conversation. “We called CBP literally every 15 minutes to makes sure everything went smoothly.
“In no way do I want to disparage individual officers of the CBP, but it really would have been super helpful if they had detained him,” he said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. I’m sure they did their best, but you would think a guy in prison garb, delivered by the Mexicans in handcuffs, carrying no ID would trigger some sort of inspection.”
Franks called it “incomprehensible that he was not detained.”
A fellow veteran had volunteered to wait for him on the U.S. side of the border, Benitez added, “But, apparently, Yeager slipped past him.”
“I began to suspect one of two things,” he said. “Either he had planned to return to the streets in the U.S.—he is quite skilled at vagrancy—or he had reentered Mexico, which is exactly what I advised him he should not do. Because the case against him in Mexico is fairly solid.”
“I wish we could have hired two ex-Marines to sit on the checkpoint and grab him the second he came out,” Franks lamented. “But we’re a real small operation. There is no show, it’s just Montel [and me] and it’s his personal finances in all of this. I wish we had unlimited resources but we don’t. The second that we realized something was wrong, we started alerting people which is why I’m talking to you. We took a second to figure out what to do, how to do it, and now we’re doing it.”
“Sounds like Mexico might need a wall to keep dirtball Americans out,” one Baja expat joked.
But, actually, for Mexicans it’s not very funny. It’s become one of the most tired movie tropes ever—think: The Shawshank Redemption or The Fugitive.
Foreign criminals love Mexico, a country where it’s far too easy to assume a new identity, make a fresh start, and live peacefully for years or even decades.
Such was the case of the fugitive biker gang leader Randy Mark Yager, who was wanted in the U.S. on several charges including murder and explosives possession. And his girlfriend, Margie Jelovcic, a woman whose mother told me back in 2014 she’d “been thinking and praying for 17 years” she would one day see again. But that day never came.
That fugitive Yager from Gary, Indiana was finally arrested by U.S. Marshals three years ago, less than 10 minutes up the road from where this latest Yeager was arrested last month.
Yager’s longtime girlfriend was killed during the chaotic arrest, just in front of the Walmart in Rosarito where this Yeager has just picked up funds. Bizarrely, a few months later the biker gang leader’s brother’s corpse was discovered—hands cuffed and throat slashed—inside a burning home in Indiana, after family members alleged that he’d been receiving death threats from the imprisoned Randy Yager, who was well-liked among expats in Mexico and had, until his arrest, led a tranquil life south of the border for nearly two decades until his identity was finally revealed.
To locals and friends, the couple seemed just like your typical retirees. They were just “Steve and Margie,” a couple of retired lovebirds who didn’t stand out in the slightest.
But, that’s not saying much. Americans in Mexico, especially in Baja, tend to be oddballs. And nine out of 10 times—according to official figures—they are living in Mexico illegally without a problem.
Such is the case of this latest Yeager, now. He’s just another undesirable foreigner in Mexico.
On Friday afternoon, after several exchanges with CBP, I contacted Franks and Benitez for clarification.
Customs and Border Patrol denies Yeager ever left Mexico. Consulate employees were unable to comment. And Mexican authorities had no idea.
“I would assume that that never happened,” said Angelica Decima, a spokesperson for the San Diego CBP, referring to the transfer that allegedly took place weeks ago. “There’s just no way.”
“There is no recent entry log for that person,” the CBP spokesperson explained. “When something like this happens, [Mexican authorities] deliver people in person directly to us, but we have no record of that.
“We deal with deportations and transfers often. It’s not at all unique, but we always keep a record,” she said. “We would have run his fingerprints, in the very least, so it just isn’t possible.”
On Friday afternoon, just as CBP was confirming that he had not reentered the U.S., Yeager’s sister said, “He told me he’s back in the States.” She then refused to comment further.
But, it was she who first confirmed to Montel’s team that Yeager had entered the U.S. to begin with.
And now it seems implausible that he ever did. So, the question of what became of Yeager, and whose version to believe is still just anyone’s guess. But people typically don’t just slip past border patrol without leaving an entry log—especially if they are undocumented, unwashed, newly released from jail, and exhibiting signs of drug withdrawal.
“We were confident that he was in San Diego and in treatment, until we realized that he wasn’t,” Franks said. Yeager’s lawyer Benitez confirmed that his “work ended when the judge ordered his liberation on April 30.” He said he received “no confirmation” that Yeager had entered the U.S., nor that he had entered a rehab or VA facility.
So, in light of the confusion, I asked Franks to reevaluate his and Montel’s intervention.
Given the circumstances—not understanding local procedure, politics, customs, the language, nor having the resources to put people on the ground who can guarantee that unstable prisoners they help regain freedom in Mexico can’t slip past their grip—I asked if Montel’s team would interfere in the case of Marines locked up for crimes committed on Mexican soil again in the future.
“We aren’t going to apologize to anybody for helping the family of a former Marine. It’s like asking, ‘How’s the view from the cheap seats?’ Most of the critics haven’t served,” Franks said. “The idea was sound. [U.S.] border patrol said they had it under control, we had a way to get him to the VA hospital [in San Diego]. It was a good plan.”
But the plan kept changing. First, he said, the consulate informed him that Yeager would be flown back to Montana, then “all of a sudden” the plan was that he would be released that afternoon.
He’d like to see this situation resolved, he said: “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re not going to have the same mistake happen twice.”
Though lamenting the confusing outcome, he had no regrets about intervening in these criminal procedures in a country that is not his own, whose laws he is not trained to understand.
“This is what happens when you fight a bunch of wars and you’re under-resourced [as a country] to take care of people,” Franks said. “It’s not an excuse for bad behaviour but it’s certainly an explanation.
“The irony is that the only reason he was caught was because he burglarized fellow Americans in Mexico,” he said. “He was likely going to walk anyway, all we did was accelerate the process.
“This was a messy case from day one,” Franks added. “Now, we’re really hoping that the Mexicans will arrest him—for Yeager’s safety and that of the public.”
Benitez said he doesn’t regret taking on the case, if for no other reason than to continue to prove a point about the broken Mexican justice system, and demand that they strive to do better.
“I didn’t have anything worse to do,” Benitez joked.
Though the turn Yeager’s case has taken is both unfortunate and rather unbelievable, it’s clear Montel had nothing but the best intentions. For him this cause is both personal and noble.
A fresh out of high school, teenage Montel Williams enlisted in 1974. He became the first black marine to be accepted and to complete the academy’s prep school, and then did the same at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He rose to the post of lieutenant commander, and served for over two decades, before then becoming the first black man to have his own daytime talk show.
Montel’s mother passed away last Sunday, and—although busy with funeral arrangements—he took a moment to explain his motivations to The Daily Beast.
“I’ve never really taken my uniform off,” he said. “I wear it figuratively every day.
“One of the greatest blessings of my success is that I have the ability to help current and retired service members,” he said.
“With respect to Marines who find themselves detained abroad, often times service-related mental illness causes them to be in trouble in the first place. Other times they have become attractive hostages for hostile governments because of their past service,” he said, referring to Hekmati.
Without “quibbling over whether I should help Marines in trouble,” he said, when asked about the pair he has advocated for in Mexico, “their service-related mental illness directly contributed to the situations they each found themselves in. That doesn’t excuse breaking the law, but it provides an explanation and a potential solution in terms of treatment.”
According to a 2014 government study, the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder for Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is among the highest of any other service group. More than one in 10 marines who come home from these wars are expected to suffer from PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than one in five veterans who return from either war suffering from PTSD will also suffer from substance abuse problems, likely “in response to bad memories of combat trauma.”
“We ask a few of the best of us to go to very dangerous places in the world, and many of them come back broken,” Montel said. “There are thousands upon thousands of Andrew [Tahmooressi]s and Tyler [Yeager]s we don’t know about, and we need to be having a conversation as a country.”
“The conversation needs to be about how we take care of those who risked their lives for ALL of us when they come home.”
Franks said about the same: “If we break somebody, it’s our obligation as a country to try to fix them.” Yeager has not been sighted. But, in a few Baja beach communities, his face remains printed on Wanted posters near the homes that he’s been inviting himself into.