Florida State Guard recruit threatened to ‘blow up’ military base, witnesses told cops

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TALLAHASSEE — A recruit for the Florida State Guard — a civilian military force under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ control — was removed from a Jacksonville training facility and sent to a hospital for a mental health evaluation in February after he reportedly told others he wanted to kill Jews and Palestinians and “blow up” a military base.

The recruit, a 23-year-old from Fleming Island, was two weeks into a month-long training camp to join the State Guard when two people training alongside him reported him for making threatening comments, according to a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office report obtained by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.

In one instance, a witness told deputies he overheard the recruit say he wanted to “get a U-Haul and fill it (with) fertilizer and ammonium nitrate and blow up the base.” Another witness told deputies he also said he wanted to kill “Jews, (Palestinians), and that they all need to be annihilated,” the report states. The Herald/Times is not naming him because law enforcement categorized the incident as a mental health case.

The incident — the second time that sheriff’s deputies detained a recruit from the same February class training to join the State Guard— exposes gaps in the organization’s vetting process as DeSantis tries to quickly grow a force that he can deploy to respond to state emergencies.

According to the police report, the recruit told deputies he had been discharged from the Marine Corps due to mental health issues that stemmed from allegations that he had physically harmed an ex-girlfriend and threatened a school — an incident that led law enforcement officers to temporarily restrict his access to firearms.

While he denied making threatening comments, deputies decided to take him to a hospital under the Baker Act, a state law that allows the involuntary commitment of people who are deemed to be an imminent danger to themselves or others, rather than arrest him.

Sierra Dean, a spokesperson for the State Guard, said this week the recruit was “removed from training and provided the medical support and attention necessary” for violating the organization’s zero-tolerance policy for abusive and violent behavior.

“The FSG will continue to put the health and well-being of our soldiers first,” Dean said.

Vetting recruits

The monthlong training in February was the second boot camp for the State Guard, which DeSantis and the Legislature revived in 2022. So far, the organization has recruited and trained 325 volunteers in a program based in Camp Blanding, a military base near Jacksonville.

That’s well short of the 1,500 soldiers authorized by state lawmakers, but still a quick ramp-up for a volunteer force that is being used to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters and immigration, including migrants trying to reach South Florida by boat. A select group within the State Guard, some of whom have received combat training by a private group, has the power to carry weapons and make arrests.

The February incident with the 23-year-old is not the first time issues have emerged with recruits.

Another Florida State Guard recruit — a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper who lost his job after a viral video appeared to show him in a patrol car racing a Lamborghini on Alligator Alley in 2018 — was arrested by sheriff’s deputies during the February training camp. His arrest was on a warrant out of Lee County on a charge related to allegations that he altered parts of his military records when applying for a job with the city of Cape Coral. He has pleaded not guilty.

Another State Guard member featured on the agency’s website under the heading “Know Your Heroes” had previously faced charges of domestic violence, robbery and battery — all of which were dropped by prosecutors, the Herald/Times found.

Since those incidents took place, state lawmakers have approved enhanced background checks for State Guard members. DeSantis last month signed into law a bill allowing the State Guard to run prospective members through federal background checks, after agency leaders noted that volunteers will be deployed with vulnerable populations. Volunteers can’t join the State Guard if they have been convicted of a felony, but some recruits have joined despite having arrests and other interactions with police on their record.

Up until late March, state officials were only doing background checks that showed an individual’s criminal and employment history within the state. But the new state law now gives the State Guard the authority to do fingerprint-based checks on a person’s state and national criminal records.

Florida law does not outline any requirements for mental health screenings for State Guard members. It only says that the director of the State Guard is tasked with establishing minimum standards for a volunteer’s “physical and health condition, and physical fitness.”

Dean did not respond when asked how the State Guard vets applicants’ mental fitness.

Sifting through the allegations

According to the police report, the recruit told deputies that he did not make threatening statements during the State Guard training camp, but that he had made “various jokes.” He added that he believed the witnesses — one of them an active duty police officer in the state — made the allegations against him because they “did not like him because he had corrected (them) on deficiencies on military standards.”

The witnesses in turn told deputies that he had threatened to “blow up the base” a week before the local sheriff’s office was alerted to his comments.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Wednesday that deputies found “no further threats” once the 23-year-old was detained under the Baker Act.

Deputies removed him from the Cecil Aquatic Center, where State Guard members were training at a pool. More than 200 recruits graduated from the February training program.

Of the roughly 300 active State Guard members, a group of 50 has been deployed to South Florida.

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