Sergeant sentenced to 6 years for theft
By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Staff Sgt. Sheridan R. Ferrell II, who stunned U.S. Central Command last August by walking out of a supposedly secure facility with four laptop computers containing classified information, was busted to the lowest enlisted rank Thursday and sentenced to six years in a military prison.
At the completion of his sentence, which includes the possibility of time off for good behavior, he is to be dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force.
"I did a bad thing, but I'm not a bad man," Ferrell said, standing before Military Judge Mary Boone.
Trying to explain his crime, he said, "I was upset; and by taking those things, I was getting back -- not at anyone in particular -- just at the system, at the way things were going."
Ferrell, 33, testified Thursday that he stole the four laptops and two hand-held personal desk assistants, or PDAs, because he was worried about personal finances -- pressured by long hours at work in a difficult post-Sept. 11 environment and angered by what he perceived as poor handling of his application for a promotion.
He said he considered selling the stolen laptops; but once the investigation started in August, he felt trapped.
"I thought, "I can't sell them, and I can't use them. What do I do now?'
"I ask you to temper justice with mercy," he said to Boone.
Lt. Col. Arthur Jackman, who prosecuted the case, urged Boone to set mercy aside and punish.
Punish to maintain discipline, he said in his closing remarks, and punish to deter similar acts. The thefts, he said, were "cold, calculated and premeditated acts." Ferrell's motivation "was to screw these guys (fellow CentCom personnel) and disrupt the command.
"The thief who stands before you did a good job of disruption," he told Boone. "Send a message to others who might do the same thing -- that they will be dealt with severely."
Ferrell had faced as much as 21 years in prison and forfeiture of all pay and privileges. In consideration of his family, Judge Boone left his salary intact, though as an E-1, it will be much lower than before. An E-1 earns a base pay of $1,150 per month, with a housing allowance of $866.
Before the judge announced her sentence, which still must be approved by the commander of the 21st Air Force, Ferrell stood before her and apologized "for the disruption, inconvenience and embarrassment I have caused. I apologize to the men and women of CentCom and to Gen. Tommy Franks.
"I destroyed the most important thing that servicemen and women share: trust," he said. "I can no longer have what I had for the last 15 years of my life."
He then turned to face those in the courtroom, and through tears apologized to his mother, Phyllis Moxley of Compton, Calif., his wife, Tandra, and his 10-year-old daughter, Alana, who did not attend.
"Please forgive me," he said to them. "I'm sorry ... God knows I'm sorry."
Ferrell grew up in Compton, "not a kid from a terrible background," Jackman said, "but from a loving home."
Ferrell's mother, Phyllis Moxley, told the judge she thought her son "just snapped" under the pressure of money worries and job stress.
His wife, Tandra, hit the same theme, calling her husband "a good guy" who worked two jobs to keep creditors away before finally filing for protection under bankruptcy laws late in 2001. He was then $31,000 in debt.
Ferrell admitted Thursday he was a bit "spoiled" as a child but said he was happy and a good student until his senior year, when he "stopped going to class."
He graduated and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1988 "to see the world, learn and straighten myself out."
And this he did, his lawyers said during the two-day court-martial at MacDill Air Force Base. He won numerous awards through the years, they said, including Information Manager of the Year at CentCom.
But growing job and financial pressure, they said, clouded his judgment.
On Aug. 2, two CentCom intelligence officers discovered their laptop computers missing -- setting off a frantic investigation, and a revamping and tightening of the command's security procedures.
The investigation turned up some surprises: two more missing computers, of which CentCom had not been aware, and two stolen PDAs. Initially, Ferrell also was charged with theft of a computer hard drive; but he pleaded innocent to that allegation, and it was dropped without explanation -- apparently as part of a deal in which Ferrell agreed to plead guilty.
Government lawyers said Thursday they did not know where Ferrell will serve his sentence. They said he will be allowed visitors.
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