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In a rare and potentially dangerous security breach, Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, jumped over the fence of the White House on Friday and dashed past security before being apprehended by officers near the North Portico doors. Prosecutors said at an initial hearing on Monday that Gonzalez was carrying a knife, and also had two hatchets and a machete, as well as 800 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle nearby.
Thankfully, President Barack Obama had departed the minutes earlier, but the breach has raised questions not just about Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran whose family has said needs help after his service, but also of presidential security at the White House.
Who is Omar Gonzalez?
He was born in Puerto Rico, but moved to the United States at a young age. And according to his ex-wife, Samantha Bell, he always wanted to join the Army.
"It’s all he wanted to do since he was little boy, is be in the military and fight for his country," Bell said in a telephone interview with NBC's Indianapolis affiliate WHTR on Monday. Bell was married to Gonzalez from 2006 until July 2014, after a period of separation.
The Army says Gonzalez first enlisted from July 1997 to September 2003, then reenlisted in July 2005 and served until his retirement in late 2012, serving in Iraq from October 2006 to January 2008. He suffered at least one physical injury, a mangled foot due to an IED, and was honorably discharged.
But he also suffered psychologically, family and friends have said.
"It was his second tour and I noticed that he was doing a lot of things that were making me uncomfortable — I knew he would never harm me (but) I know whatever happened in Iraq, it affected him," Bell said.
“Looking back I wish there was something I could do to help him. He’s not a bad guy. He needs to get treatment,” she said.
Neighbors in the Copperas Cave, Texas, neighborhood were Bell and Gonzalez lived, said that children loved him, but they disturbed him.
"He told me the kids made him nervous, that when he was in combat, kids had bombs strapped to them,” Elke Warner, a 49-year-old corrections officer who lived down the street, told the Los Angeles Times.
A family member who did not want to be identified until the completion of the Secret Service investigation told the L.A. Times that Gonzalez had been depressed for a while.
“We talked to him on 9/11 and he said he planned to go to a Veterans Administration hospital to seek treatments,” said the family member. “He’s been depressed for quite some time. He’d been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.”
The military does not provide details about a soldier's disability due to privacy rights. Department of Veterans Affairs records show Gonzalez began receiving $1,652 monthly in disability compensation in February from the Veterans Benefits Administration, according to a VA spokesperson. "It does not appear the veteran sought treatment in any VA healthcare facility," the spokesperson said.
What’s going to happen to him now?
In Gonzalez’s first federal court appearance since the Friday incident, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Mudd said the suspect was "a danger to the president,” and a judge ordered him held without bail until October 1.
He is facing charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon — a nearly four-inch knife, in his case. That charge carries a sentence of up to ten years.
But federal prosecutors also revealed that Gonzalez had been detained at least twice before this incident.
Prosecutors revealed that he had been stopped on August 25 while walking along the south fence of the White House with a hatchet in his waistband, but he was not arrested.
And on July 19, after being spotted driving recklessly in a gray Ford Bronco, Gonzalez was charged in Wythe County, Virginia, with evading arrest and possession of a weapon after he was found in possession of 11 weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun, assault rifles and knives, and map — with the White House circled, prosecutors said.
The Virginia State Police say they did notify the ATF and Secret Service about their arrest at the time. On Monday neither government nor defense attorneys requested a mental health screening for Gonzalez.
What will happen with White House security?
The Secret Service says it is reviewing how Gonzalez was able to make it so far onto the White House grounds, and said in a statement that “the location of Gonzalez's arrest is not acceptable.” Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said there would be increased security patrols and surveillance of the White House fence and an investigation into what went wrong.
On Monday, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton — who represents Washington, D.C., and is on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — sent a letter to Pierson asking for a meeting to discuss this and other security breaches at the White House.
"Before any action is taken, the first step must be to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the White House breach," Norton said. "The next step is to recognize that the area in front of the White House, including Lafayette Park, is a First Amendment area, which must not be taken away from District of Columbia residents and the millions of other Americans who visit each year."
Also on Monday, the president reiterated his faith in the men and women who keep him safe.
"The Secret Service does a great job,” he said at an unrelated event. “I am grateful for the sacrifices they make for me and my family."