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Ex-Special Forces soldier sentenced in Afghanistan embezzlement scheme

A former Fort Bragg soldier has been sentenced to more than four years in prison for his role in stealing more than $200,000 in taxpayer money while deployed to Afghanistan.

Mauricio Espinoza, 34, of Modesto, Calif., was sentenced to four years, three months in federal prison, U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker said in a release.

Espinoza, a former sergeant first class with the 7th Special Forces Group, also was sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $114,034.80 in restitution.

Espinoza and his co-conspirator, former Staff Sgt. Philip Wooten, pleaded guilty last year to embezzling money out of Afghanistan during a deployment in 2009 and 2010.

The two would withdraw money to use at their outpost, but would instead send it home to pay for expensive jewelry and other items, according to court documents.

Wooten was sentenced to one year, three months in prison and was ordered to pay $110,250 in restitution.

Espinoza's case had twice been delayed, first when he failed to appear for trial and most recently when he failed to appear in court to be sentenced in January.

Espinoza pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, stealing and converting monies belonging to the U.S. government, smuggling currency into the United States, and theft and conversion of government property.

After not appearing for his earlier sentencing date, he was arrested and held in custody until his hearing Friday.

Espinoza had faced up to five years in prison, according to court documents.

In a release, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Espinoza was a paying agent in Afghanistan and Wooten was the field ordering officer.

Wooten was responsible for contracting with local vendors, and Espinoza was responsible for paying those vendors.

Together, they funneled cash back to the United States in the form of money orders.

Espinoza also purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with some of the stolen money, according to the release, and wired other funds to locations in the United States and Peru.

Maj. Gen. Edward M. Reeder, former head of U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, said in a letter that Espinoza's actions hurt Special Forces serving overseas.

"The success of a Special Forces unit when dealing with the local Afghan populace is based on trust and respect," Reeder said. "The majority of the Afghan population views the United States as one more in a long line of interlopers. When a person they regularly do business with, in this case Espinoza, is exposed as a thief and a liar, the established trust and respect is destroyed and can only be regained, if ever, through extraordinary efforts."

Last month, jewelry that once belonged to Wooten was auctioned by the U.S. Marshals Service.

A three-ring set purchased with the embezzled funds was among almost 300 lots of gold and silver bullion, coins, diamonds, jewelry and watches seized in federal crime cases nationwide.

The items were sold to compensate victims of crime and supplement law enforcement programs.

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