U.S. Marshals Arrest Houston Man for 1987 Student Loan Debt

A Houston man says U.S. Marshals showed up at his door with automatic weapons and full combat gear — all because he hadn't paid a $1,500 student loan from nearly three decades ago.

Paul Aker told TODAY the marshals forced him to the ground, handcuffed him and briefly threw him behind bars over his 1987 loan for Prairie View A&M. Aker said he had no idea why the officers were there, much less why they were in tactical clothing.

"All this fire power for a student loan?" Aker, a freelance sound engineer, said he asked the marshals who served him the arrest warrant. "Send a summons, certified letter — not the marshals."

US marshals arresting people for not paying student loans 2:31

But the U.S. Marshals Office said it had been doing just that for the loan, which with interest, ballooned to $5,700.

Marshals have been trying to contact Aker for the past three years, Richard Hunter, chief deputy U.S. Marshal for the southern district of Texas, told TODAY. He added that Aker has left out other key details.

"We actually talked to him on the phone in 2013, at which time he told us that he would not appear in court and that we would have to come get him," Hunter said.

Hunter said Marshals also taped notices to Aker's door, although Aker claims he only received one postcard from them, which he thought was "bogus."

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When Marshals went to his home last week with the arrest warrant to collect the money once and for all, Hunter said, "Mr. Aker yelled from inside, 'I have a gun!'"

The Marshals retreated and called for backup, and then returned in tactical gear, Hunter said.

"So you can tell the story is a little bit different," he said. "Mr. Aker seems to have forgotten quite a bit."

Aker said he was "totally frightened" and after a couple of hours in custody, was booked for disobeying a court order and released — but not before getting a scolding from the judge.

"The judge asked me if I'm in the habit of stealing from the United States government," he said.

Aker has been ordered to pay the $5,700 starting in April, and also owes the U.S. Marshals Service $1,258.60 for their part in the arrest.

"I think it's excessive. I think it's surreal," Aker said. "It's so unrealistic that you can treat a citizen as if he's a drug dealer or as if he's a killer, a murderer, over a debt."

Hunter called it an "extreme case."

"The people in debt out there shouldn't be afraid the U.S. Marshals are going to come kick their doors down," he said.