NAPLES — A 75-year-old veteran who continued pretending he was a decorated war hero with a Purple Heart — prompting a senior citizen to loan him thousands — was sentenced Thursday to three years in state prison.
It was the second time Raymond John Gauthier, formerly of East Naples, violated probation after he was sentenced in April 2007 to five years’ probation and ordered to publish an apology in the Daily News, destroy his fake uniforms, medals and documents and work every military holiday for five years at the county jail.
The sentencing came a day before a Florida law goes into effect that makes it a felony to pretend to be a military veteran to solicit funds, including by wearing uniforms and medals; Gauthier didn’t do that. Today, that amendment to the Solicitations and Contributions Act means violators face five years in prison.
In August, a U.S. appeals court overturned the 2006 Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime to pretend to be a vet, including wearing a uniform and medals. The court ruled it was unconstitutional and violated a bogus California vet’s rights to free speech.
Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt said he’d wondered what prompted Gauthier to continue lying.
“Why did he do these things?” Hardt asked after Gauthier didn’t speak at sentencing. “I haven’t heard any reason why he did. To wear a uniform to which he was not entitled to, to wear a ribbon and medals he was never awarded?”
Hardt said probation didn’t work, then sentenced him; he’d faced up to five years for being a gross common cheat, a third-degree felony. Gauthier, who wore an orange jail jumpsuit, showed no reaction. However, nine veterans who had followed the case since his December 2006 arrest, left court and clapped and quietly cheered in the hallway.
Gauthier had once told reporters he was lonely, he wanted friends and people listened to his war stories.
Before he was exposed by Homer Helter, who owns a Naples military shop, Gauthier was a familiar figure at veteran events, wearing a uniform covered in medals, including a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He often recounted stories about being a Vietnam POW.
In reality, Gauthier had served in the Army and Air Force, but only earned a sharpshooter award and the National Defense Service Medal, something all officers got.
He was discharged under “less than honorable conditions” and his criminal record dated to the 1960s, with grand theft and assault with a deadly weapon.
After sentencing, Vietnam veteran Bob Knee, 63, said impostors can’t understand what veterans went through — or their pride and honor.
“It’s a slap in the face to real veterans,” Knee said, surrounded by other members of the Naples Marine Corps League. “... I think when he’s released, he’ll find another hole to crawl into and do the same thing again.”
Helter, who noticed typos in Gauthier’s DD-214 when he wanted his medals mounted, said it was about time he went to prison.
“This has gone on for years,” said Helter, who isn’t a veteran, but became an honorary league member after alerting Jay R. Jones, then-district commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “He’s arrogant and the judge finally did what he had to do: Put him away.”
Gauthier’s first arrest involved his POW license plates, which he obtained after applying with a fake DD-214 with phony military service dates and medals. Prosecutor Jerry Brock, who retired, charged him under an obscure statute.
Six months after Hardt sentenced him, probation officers in Brevard County, where he’d moved, found a phony DD-214 form listing fake medals and dates hidden in his closet. In February 2008, Hardt sentenced him to 90 days in jail.
Three weeks ago, Hardt found him guilty of violating probation again after a Cocoa Beach senior citizen testified she’d rented a condo to him, posted his $500 bond after his 2007 arrest, used her condo as collateral and paid $15,000 for his legal fees — “maxing out” her home equity line of credit.
Judith Ann Donaldson testified she and her husband helped Gauthier because he said he was an Army Ranger, a Vietnam vet, had numerous medals, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star — just like her dead husband — and he was a POW.
She was seriously injured in a crash driving home from that hearing, was hospitalized three times and couldn’t return for sentencing.
Two defense witnesses portrayed Gauthier as a kind man who saved their lives by fixing electrical work in their old mobile homes.
“It will cost more money to the state to put him in prison,” defense attorney Adam Oosterbaan said, asking for probation or house arrest and noting he’d been jailed since November.
Assistant State Attorney Jim Molenaar urged him to impose the maximum, five years, arguing Donaldson lost thousands. He added: “There’s no guarantee (house arrest) will stop him ...”
After sentencing, Molenaar said it was important for everyone at the State Attorney's Office and Collier County Economic Crimes Unit to handle the case in the thorough way they did because "Gauthier's choices reeked of disrespect."
"Our office chose to prosecute this man because members of the Armed Forces take an oath to protect and defend the United States' Constitution, both foreign and domestic," he added. "Doing so, some members have been recognized for their valor while seriving this country. ... Clearly, Judge Hardt recognized this when he handed down Mr. Gauthier's sentence."