ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - The date is April 9. The scene of the crime: a Kirtland Air Force Base convenience store. Exhibit A? A cap.
Specifically it was a camouflage hat, but was it enough to end a military career?
"Yes, sir," ex-Senior Airman Steven Baca said.
Baca proudly served his country with the New Mexico Air National Guard. But last year, the forward march of Baca's military career took an abrupt about face.
"I was arrested, put in handcuffs, patted down," he said, adding he was jailed at the Kirtland Air Force Base Security Police headquarters.
In the realm of military justice, Baca's Air Force arrest can best be described as bizarre. Once the security police slapped handcuffs on the young Guardsman, it was the beginning of the end of his military career.
Security cameras were rolling when Baca, dressed in fatigues, entered the store to buy a pack of gum.
Soon a man in shorts confronted the Guardsman and ordered him to remove his hat.
"He got right in my face and said take off your hat. I was like who are you?" Baca said. "I asked him to identify himself and said, 'Who are you?' And he asked, 'Who is your commander?'"
In the Air Force it is a matter of courtesy to remove your hat indoors. Even though Baca did take off his military hat, the guy in shorts did not let up.
"He asked again, 'Who is your commander?" Baca continued. "And I just told him, 'I work for the Air Guard; that's all I'm giving you. If you want that information you have to find it yourself because you're not identifying yourself.'
"And then he followed me outside to my vehicle."
In the parking lot the guy in shorts ordered Baca to halt.
"At that time I was like, I got to get away from this guy. He was kind of crazy," Baca said. "He's blocking my departure. He's standing behind my vehicle.
"I backed out very slowly to avoid him. To my knowledge I didn't hit him with my car."
Baca returned to his unit. End of story? Not quite.
You see, the guy in the shorts is not some civilian bully. He's Master Sgt. Bruce Mims with the Kirtland Security Police.
Mims decided to teach Baca a lesson. In a criminal complaint he said, "In all my years, I've never been disrespected like that, all over being asked to remove a hat indoors."
Mims rounded up an Air Force police posse and hauled the 23-year-old Guardsman off to jail.
"I was arrested for assault, fleeing the scene of an accident and the two military charges, insubordination and disobeying an order," Baca said.
Baca was detained and then released. The case was then turned over to the National Guard for discipline.
What really happened there that day? Did Baca disobey orders and commit crimes? And did he refuse to remove his hat?"
Even though Baca did take off his cap and says the man dressed in shorts and a pullover shirt wouldn't identify himself, what was the authority of Mims to issue orders?
"It does not excuse the airman for not taking his hat off when asked," said Col. John Kubinec, who took over Kirtland in December as commander of 377th Air Base Wing. "It is drilled into our minds from day one that you don't wear your cover indoors."
The store video may not tell the whole story, the colonel added.
"What it doesn't show, Larry, is how many times the master sergeant asked the airman before that to remove his cap," Kubinec said.
Baca was then arrested.
"On these facts, it's hard to say that justice is done on this case," said professor Victor Hansen of the New England College of Law, who serves on the National Institute for Military Justice, an organization dedicated to promoting fairness in the military.
"In practical reality, as a former prosecutor, military prosecutor, if somebody took this case to me under these guys, I would say, 'We're not going to waste our time with this. This is nonsense,'" Hansen said. "I think it's kind a situation where things have gotten out of control.
"It smacks a little bit of railroading of this individual out of the Air Force."
It gets worse after Baca's arrest. While sitting in an Air Force jail cell, his Guard unit departed for a training exercise in West Virginia.
Because he failed to make the flight, the commander of his Guard unit charged him with being absent without leave.
"It is within the agency's right to do that," Col. Joe Martinez, commander of the 150th Fighter Wing, said. "If he's incarcerated and misses a movement, he is technically AWOL."
The National Guard later decided to pull the plug on Baca's military career. Citing a pattern of misbehavior, Baca was slapped with a general discharge. Among his misdeeds, the cap caper.
"The airman was in violation of Air Force regulations in wearing his headgear indoors," Martinez said. "It is a serious offense in the military."
But how serious of an offense is it to wear your cap indoors?
"It's just a very minor infraction oftentimes most people forget," Hansen said. "I've often reminded people to take their cover off, to remove their cover indoors. It's not a serious thing."
Retired Air Force Col. Jack Martines, whose distinguished military career included a tour of duty at the Pentagon, was Steven Baca's ROTC instructor at Valley High School in Albuquerque.
"The way it went down was an overreaction all the way around," Martines said via satellite. "To discharge a young man trying to make his way in life, who was trying to do a good job as far as I was concerned in the Air Force, it was an injustice in that respect."
Albuquerque attorney Reber Boult, who serves on the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild, also took issue with the charges against Baca.
"It all started with the hat," Boult said. "What else can I say?
"When our government is treating people bad, we should know about it. And our government, in the form of the Air Force, is treating Airman Baca bad."
After making the transition from senior airman to civilian, Steven Baca is getting his life back together.
But what does the guy who started it all have to say? Well, nothing.
Air Force Master Sgt. Bruce Mims did not respond to a request for comment.
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