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Rancho Santa Fe-based Spirit of Liberty Foundation presents check to help pay Marine veteran’s legal fees

Jill Tahmooressi, mother of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, thanks Spirit of Liberty Foundation representative Michael Rainey for the $1,500 check for legal fees. Photo by Kristina Houck
Jill Tahmooressi, mother of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, thanks Spirit of Liberty Foundation representative Michael Rainey for the $1,500 check for legal fees. Photo by Kristina Houck

By Kristina Houck

Legal fees are quickly mounting for a U.S. Marine veteran who has been held in a Mexican prison for four months, but a local organization aims to help.

Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, has maintained that he never intended to leave the United States on March 31 when he crossed the border into Tijuana. Inspectors found three loaded weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunitions, all of which Tahmooressi has said he purchased legally in the U.S.

In support of Tahmooressi, the Spirit of Liberty Foundation presented a $1,500 check during an Aug. 5 press conference at Solana Beach’s Belly Up Tavern to help cover some of his legal fees. The Rancho Santa Fe nonprofit supports men and women in the Armed Forces with an emphasis on wounded warriors and fallen heroes.

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The Spirit of Liberty Foundation accepted donations for Tahmooressi’s legal defense over the Fourth of July weekend at the San Diego County Fair. The organization was at the Del Mar Fairgrounds so fairgoers could ring its nearly 300-pound Liberty Bell replica.

“The Spirit of Liberty Foundation tries to bring awareness about how hard it is on the veterans in this country,” said foundation representative Michael Rainey, who presented the check along with executive assistant Angela Holas. “I think this kid stepped into a situation that he wasn’t aware of. I don’t think he deserves to be in this situation. I know that he doesn’t deserve to go through the financial burden he’s going through, so we wanted to help him out.”

Although Tahmooressi’s second evidentiary hearing took place Monday, his mother, Jill Tahmooressi, said the case could take months.

She expects the costs to total tens of thousands of dollars. The expenses will surely deplete her son’s savings from his two tours of duty in Afghanistan, she said during the event, which was organized by Serving California, a faith-based nonprofit committed to assisting veterans, crime victims and incarcerated inmates.

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“It has been quite a trial and a tribulation, but I will say that throughout this journey, both Andrew and I have always tried to find the positive,” said Tahmooressi through tears. “There’s been such an outpouring of support by not only the American public, but in Mexico, around the world, and our legislators and executive branch. God willing, in His perfect time, I know Andrew will be back in the States.”

During the five-hour hearing in Tijuana, Tahmooressi’s lawyer, Fernando Benitez, argued before Judge Victor Octavio Luna Escobedo that Mexican officials illegally detained his client for eight hours without the assistance of an attorney, a representative of the U.S. Consulate or a proper translator.

Prosecutors, however, insisted that standard protocol was in place when Tahmooressi was arrested and detained.

“We believe that we can ultimately prove beyond any doubt that Andrew’s turn into Mexico was a mistake,” said Benitez, the third attorney hired by Tahmooressi’s family.

He noted that previous counsel missed key opportunities to seek dismissal of the case during the initial days after Tahmooressi’s arrest. “He did not intend to be in Mexico. Furthermore, he did not intend to smuggle weapons inside Mexico, but that’s how things appear to the uninformed eye at first glance.”

When presenting the check, representatives from the Spirit of Liberty Foundation encouraged others to donate and match the $1,500.

Founded in the early 1980s, the Spirit of Liberty Foundation was created to help raise funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Its focus changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and now it honors, raises awareness and supports the Armed Forces — past, present and future.

To commemorate and remember the military, the foundation’s Freedom Bell was cast on June 6, 2013, D-Day, incorporating steel remnants from the World Trade Center towers. The exterior of the bell displays the seal of all five branches of the U.S. military — the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The base of the bell is embossed with 50 stars, one for every state.

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The Freedom Bell debuted on Flag Day, June 14, 2013, at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. It has also been displayed in San Diego on top of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, in New York for the 12th anniversary of 9/11, at the Arlington National Cemetery for Veterans Day, and at the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu for Pearl Harbor Day.

More than 1 million people have seen, touched or rung the bell in 13 months, said Richard Rovsek, the founder of the organization. And more than 1,000 people rang the bell and donated money to support Tahmooressi at the fair, he added.

“Our whole effort is to support the men and women in our armed forces — whether they’re wounded in combat or they’re the families of fallen heroes,” said Rovsek, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, in a phone interview prior to the event. “This young man, candidly, has been left out to dry. It’s hard to believe.”

For more about the Spirit of Liberty Foundation, visit

www.spiritoflibertyfoundation.com

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For more about Serving California, visit www.servingcalifornia.org. To learn more or donate to the fund, visit

www.andrewfreedomfund.com

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