Legion members protest pardon for fellow veteran for ‘heinous’ sex assault

Group maintains that John Arias ‘used’ Legion members to help gain approval by Nebraska Board of Pardons

By: - October 14, 2022 5:45 am

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts presided over the Nebraska Board of Pardons hearing in September. The board includes Secretary of State Bob Evnen (foreground) and Attorney General Doug Peterson (Jazari Kual/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A group of American Legion members are protesting the September pardon of a fellow Legion member, saying that John Arias didn’t deserve a pardon for a violent, 1993 sex assault and that Arias used other Legion members to win the pardon.

On Sept. 19, the Nebraska Board of Pardons voted 2-1 to grant Arias a pardon, a formal act of forgiveness that allows his name to be removed from the state’s Sex Offender Registry and restores his voting and gun rights.

The members of the Pardons Board, before they voted, noted the support shown by about 20 American Legion members who sat together at the meeting. They wore their signature Legion caps, to show their support of Arias, who sits on a state veteran affairs and rehabilitation committee.

Not a ‘misunderstanding’

A former state Legion commander said that not all Legion members supported the pardon of a sex offender and that the Legion cap is only supposed to be worn at official or Legion-sponsored functions. 

Beth Linn of Scottsbluff, who served as state Legion commander from 2016-17, also said that while Arias has claimed the sexual assault was a “misunderstanding,” it was far from it.

“Raping your wife in front of her kids while she’s tied to a bed is not a misunderstanding,” Linn said.

A group of Legion members, including Linn, have planned a “peaceful protest” of the pardon on Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Showed remorse, Ricketts said

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who chairs the Pardons Board and voted to pardon Arias, said in a statement that Arias has accepted responsibility for a crime committed nearly 30 years ago and “has shown to be remorseful.”

“He has not had any offenses since serving his sentence and has since become an active member of the veteran community, helping others who suffer from PTSD,” Ricketts said in a statement, noting the support by veterans at the Pardons Board hearing.

At the same September meeting, Earnest Jackson, an Omaha man who has spent 22 years in prison for a murder he maintains he didn’t commit — and one in which two co-defendants were deemed innocent because of self defense — was unanimously denied a pardon

Attorney General Doug Peterson, who also voted for the Arias pardon, deferred comment to the governor. Secretary of State Bob Evnen voted “no.”

When contacted by the Examiner, Don Suchy, the current state commander of the American Legion and one of those who attended the Pardons Board hearing in support of Arias, said that the Legion does not condone violence but that Arias, since serving out his prison sentence, had been a “model citizen” and a mentor to other veterans to reform their lives.

Now leading a ‘law-abiding life’

“We support him in leading a productive and law-abiding life,” Suchy said in an email. “Since his release, he has sought only to better himself to society.”

While he said he wasn’t fully aware of Arias’ crime, Suchy questioned whether Arias was a victim of “overzealous prosecution” and whether it made a difference that he suffered from PTSD.

Concerning Legion caps, he said that they are typically worn only at official meetings but that “the wearing of a Legion cap only indicates the individual wearing the cap is in uniform.”

“Nebraska Legionnaires showed up to support the individual’s transformation,” Suchy said, adding that they didn’t have a “vote or voice” in the Pardon Board’s decision.

Broke into home

Messages left seeking comment from Arias, 57, of Grand Island, were not returned.

John Arias
John Arias (Courtesy of the Nebraska State Patrol)

He was convicted of first-degree sexual assault in 1994. 

Court records indicate that he broke into the Ogallala home of his estranged wife, then terrorized her with a knife. He tied her to a bed and sexually assaulted while their children, ages 5 and 7, were in the home. Arias then took the children and fled to Texas, leaving his wife bound and gagged.

 He was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison, a sentence he completed in 2008.

At the Pardons Board hearing, Arias, a former Marine who served in the Gulf War, noted that he has been active in supporting fellow veterans. He was quoted in a recent Grand Island Independent story about the launching of veterans treatment court in Adams County as an alternative to prison for veterans who commit crimes.

Contested his listing

A check of state court records indicate that Arias has not been charged with any criminal offenses since 1993. But he was very active in filing civil lawsuits while in prison and shortly afterwards. At least 15 times, he sued state prison officials and members of the Nebraska Parole Board.

 In 2009, Arias, also legally contested the determination that he was a “dangerous” sex offender who warranted lifetime listing on the sex offender registry maintained by the Nebraska State Patrol.

The sex offender registry, it should be noted, has been controversial in recent years, with several offenders contesting their listing, maintaining that very few reoffend and that the public listing is cruel, double punishment.

Arias argued that prison psychologists deemed that he was not a threat to reoffend. Arias did acknowledge that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he said that didn’t represent a threat to society, either. 

Assault was ‘very heinous’

Linn, and a press release from a group of Legion members called “What About Us?” stated that they opposed pardons for sex offenders because it is against their “morals and ethical standards.” Arias’ crime, they added, was “very heinous.”

The group, in its press release, asked, “What if it was your loved one?”

The group said that Legion caps should not have been worn at the Pardons Board hearing and that all Legion members should have been informed before such a demonstration of support was made.

 ‘This was kept pretty quiet. It was not made public to the body of Legion members of Nebraska,” Linn said.

She added that the pardon set a very bad precedent.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.