Maria Suarez recalls fondly the young man she fell in love with, the father of her two children, now ages 12 and 9.
“He was very caring, loving, funny,” she said.
But he also felt a call to duty.
“He wanted to be the best soldier he could be,” Suarez said.
Gabriel James Brown, Jr. enlisted in the Army when he was just 17, serving in the Green Berets for four years before receiving an honorable discharge in 2007.
In five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, he earned a Bronze Star with Valor for saving fellow soldiers during an ambush in Afghanistan.
Suarez said when Brown returned to civilian life something was wrong.
“Something that didn't let him sleep right at night, staying up," Suarez said. "Sometimes he would stay on the couch, I think keeping extra lookout for stuff.”
Brown missed the thrill of the fight and returned to the region as a private contractor in Pakistan. But when he came home it would get worse, Suarez said, adding the problems that led to their divorce in 2010.
The post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and a gambling habit took their toll until 2013 when Brown was arrested in connection with a series of armed robberies in the Tampa area.
“Gabriel Brown is an extraordinary man,” said his criminal defense attorney, Jose Baez. “I’d never met anyone like him.”
But by the time Baez did meet him, it was too late -- Brown was a broken man.
Baez said he knows the feeling of winning a big court case, none garnering more attention than the acquittal of Casey Anthony.
But Baez told Local 6, “By far my proudest day as a lawyer is the day I represented Gabriel Brown. I would clearly rank this as my greatest success.”
The end of Brown’s crime spree came after a Feb. 5, 2013, robbery of a TD Bank in Auburndale, where video shows a masked Brown entering with weapon drawn, then tossing the smoke grenade to cover his escape.
Unknown to Brown, police, suspecting him of an earlier robbery, had planted a GPS tracker on his car that morning and he was arrested the next day.
Facing a minimum of 32 years to life in prison, Brown’s by-then ex-wife, Suarez, sought a lawyer who would see Brown for the man he was, not the criminal he had become. She found Baez and co-counsel Ronald Manto.
“I feel like his lawyers,” Suarez said, pausing to wipe tears, “they really took the time to know who Gabriel was.”
At his sentencing in January, so did U.S. District Judge James Moody.
After prosecutors agreed to a plea deal, Brown still faced a guidelines sentence of at least 17 and a half years, which prosecutors sought.
But Baez played a PowerPoint presentation that those in the courtroom said brought many to tears and persuaded Moody to sentence Brown to only five years in prison.
“The Army made him an armed robber,” Baez told Local 6. “His tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and the work he did in Pakistan turned him into an adrenaline junkie. It gave him a mental illness he did not know how to deal with.”
Baez said that illness led him to rob for money to gamble, mostly at Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.
“The Gabriel Browns of the world are the true costs of war,” Baez said, adding there are many thousands of veterans also suffering at home.
Reminded that not all of the them are robbing stores or banks, Baez said, “Not all of them have been exposed to the things Gabriel Brown was.”