Retired Sgt. Maj. Louis Dinatale will be in a Canadian courtroom on Wednesday to fight weapon possession charges. (Louis DiNatale)
DiNatale was a paralegal specialist in the Army. (Louis DiNatale)
A retired sergeant major who spent his Army career in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps is fighting to clear his name after being charged with unauthorized possession of a weapon and smuggling goods into Canada.
Louis DiNatale, who was a paralegal specialist in the Army, faces up to three years in prison if convicted; his trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Brockville, Ontario.
On Sept. 14, DiNatale and his wife, Cathy, were traveling from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, to Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont for an anniversary getaway when their GPS took them off course to the Canadian border, DiNatale’s Canadian attorney Bruce Engel told Army Times earlier this year.
At the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing, DiNatale told the agent, “I didn’t mean to come here, I wanted to go to Smugglers’ Notch,” Engel said.
DiNatale then asked if he could simply turn his car around, but his request was denied, according to a Facebook page created in support of the 23-year soldier.
“The border agent began to ask questions, specifically about weapons,” according to the Facebook group titled “In Support of SGM Louis DiNatale.”
“Lou was asked if he owned any weapons and why. Lou respectfully told the agent that he was an American citizen and it is his right to do so. Lou also told the agent he is retired military and has a concealed carry license.”
When the agent asked for their identification cards, DiNatale handed over his Kentucky driver’s license while his wife handed over her Florida license, Engel said.
When the agent asked why the couple had IDs from different states, DiNatale explained that his wife maintains her Florida residency because of her concealed weapons permit, Engel said.
When the agent asked if DiNatale had a weapon on him, DiNatale said no — he and his wife did not realize there was a firearm inside the car, Engel said.
Agents searched DiNatale’s car and found a Bersa .380-caliber handgun in the center console, Engel said.
A week before the trip to Vermont, DiNatale had put the Bersa in his wife’s car because he didn’t want it in his car when he went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for a dental appointment, according to the Facebook page.
DiNatale forgot the gun was in his wife’s car when they left for Vermont, according to the page.
“With weapons drawn, he and Cathy were handcuffed, arrested and interrogated by Canadian border authorities,” the Facebook page states.
Cathy DiNatale spent the couple’s anniversary trying to find an attorney to help them, the Facebook page states. Canadian authorities held DiNatale for four days before he got a bail hearing.
The soldier faces two criminal code offenses and three customs offenses, Engel said.
They are: unauthorized possession of a weapon; possession of a loaded, prohibited weapon (this charge stems from the short barrel on DiNatale’s handgun); failure to report goods imported into Canada; making a false statement; and smuggling goods into Canada.
DiNatale could face up to three years behind bars, Engel said, but he will fight every charge.
“He wants to clear his name, he wants to exonerate himself,” Engel said. “He never intended to do anything wrong, to break any laws, to disrespect Canadian rules. This was completely inadvertent and a horrible accident, a horrible mistake.”
Border agency weighs in
Army Times contacted the Canada Border Services Agency for comment. Caroline Desjarlais, a communications officer for the agency’s Northern Ontario Region, said the agency cannot discuss individual cases. She did say, however, that “Canadian firearms laws are clear.”
“All persons, including Canadians, must declare all firearms and weapons in their possession when they enter Canada,” she said in an email to Army Times. “Anyone who does not declare firearms or weapons upon arrival may face prosecution and the firearms and/or weapons, and the vehicles used to carry them, may be seized.”
The country’s Customs Act also “requires anyone arriving at the Canadian border to report to the CBSA and truthfully answer all questions asked by a border services officer,” Desjarlais said.
Most undeclared firearms seized by the CBSA at land border ports of entry are personal firearms belonging to travelers arriving from the U.S. or transiting Canada who did not declare them after being asked about them by an officer, Desjarlais said.
In 2013, Canadian border agents seized 95 non-restricted firearms, which includes semi-automatic rifles and shotguns with barrels that are at least 18.5 inches long, Desjarlais said.
That same year, agents seized 142 restricted firearms, which include most handguns, and 209 prohibited firearms, which include handguns with barrels shorter than 4.14 inches and automatic firearms.
Engel stressed that DiNatale had no intention to cross the border.
“He didn’t have to answer all those questions,” Engel said. “And the search was unlawful.”
The lawyer alleges that the search was conducted improperly and that there was no “possession” of the weapon because possession is defined as knowledge and control.
“He may have control because he was in the vehicle, but you have to have knowledge,” he said.
In addition to the Facebook page supporting him, friends have set up a legal defense fund at gofundme.com to raise money for the couple.
The DiNatales have sold both their cars and maxed out all of their credit cards to pay his legal fees, according to the website. They also have emptied his military retirement savings account and taken out a loan.
“The toll this ordeal has had on the DiNatales emotionally and physically has been overwhelming,” the website states. “As Americans, we are protected under the Second Amendment. The Canadian authorities are using Sgt. Maj. DiNatale as an example in their hardline anti-gun stance. This could have happened to any of us.”
Soldiers support DiNatale
Retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg, who served as deputy Judge Advocate General for the Army from 1997 to 2001, was DiNatale’s boss at the 1st Armored Division and later at the Pentagon.
“I remember him as a very sharp [noncommissioned officer] and a hardworking guy who was dedicated to our mission,” Altenburg said. “I had a lot of confidence in him.”
David Abramowitz, a retired colonel who served as the inspector general for Forces Command, has known DiNatale since he was a young private.
“I’ve known him and his wife since they first came in the Army,” Abramowitz said. “And when he came to the Sergeants Major Academy in 2006, he became one of my students.”
Abramowitz, who served as commandant of the academy in 2005 and 2006, also was DiNatale’s commander during Operation Desert Storm.
“I was shocked,” Abramowitz said when he learned about the charges DiNatale faces. “He’s the most honest person I’ve ever known. He would never, ever knowingly break the law.”
In the Army, DiNatale was Abramowitz’s legal specialist, he said.
“I would always ask him for legal advice,” Abramowitz said. “He always gave me the best advice.”
Abramowitz, who is now director of the northeast region of the Florida Department of Children and Families, said he has “no doubt in my mind” that DiNatale is telling the truth.
“He knows the law better than any person I know,” Abramowitz said. “And he’s the most honorable person I’ve ever met.”