TAMPA — A man who belonged to SEAL Team 6 — the U.S military unit that took down Osama bin Laden in 2011 — has not been raising money for veterans outside a Wawa.
A fake SEAL was, though.
Freemane J. Brown, 54, was arrested Wednesday on a felony charge of unlawful use of uniforms, medals or insignia. He was taken into custody days after Hillsborough sheriff's deputies said he solicited money for veterans while impersonating a U.S. Navy commander who served with SEAL Team 6.
Instead, deputies said that Brown had assembled a rather elaborate U.S. Navy uniform using military clothing and insignia he purchased from a local Army/Navy surplus store.
The whole thing started on Aug. 7, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. About 9:30 a.m., a citizen notified deputies about an individual wearing a military uniform "aggressively soliciting" money for veterans at the Wawa store at 804 E Bearss Ave. near Lutz.
Deputies found Brown wearing tan Navy service khakis. They said he bore the rank of commander and had 21 ribbons pinned to his left breast, including the golden U.S. Navy SEAL Trident pin and Parachutist Badge, or "jump wings."
He also had two of the highest decorations for valor that a member of the armed forces can earn in combat: the third-highest-ranking medal, the Silver Star, and the second-highest, the Navy Cross.
While impressive, deputies said many of the insignia and ribbons on Brown's uniform were not in compliance with standard military regulations.
The Wawa manager told deputies she gave permission to Brown to stand outside the store because she believed he was a veteran. Deputies said that when they first questioned Brown, he told them that he was a former member of SEAL Team 6 — the moniker for the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka NSWDG or DEVGRU — and was "traveling all over the world." SEAL stands for U.S. Navy's Sea-Air-Land Teams.
After further questioning, deputies said, Brown admitted that he was neither a U.S. Navy officer nor a SEAL. Brown voluntarily surrendered all of the military insignias he was wearing, according to the Sheriff's Office, but was not arrested until Wednesday.
There are state and federal laws against "stolen valor" cases, where people misrepresent themselves as members of the U.S. military to obtain money or property, or to benefit themselves. Brown is accused of violating Florida law, but in 2013 President Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act making such acts a federal crime.
Stetson University College of Law professor Charles Rose said that the difference between the allegations against Brown and a panhandler bearing a sign claiming that they're a military veteran is that Brown was accused of using a military uniform and insignia to fraudulently obtain money.
"It's so ludicrous, it could only be designed to get money," Rose said. "If he had a more reasonable lie, he might have got away with it."
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Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.