John and Barbara Garlington on their 61st wedding anniversary.EXPAND
John and Barbara Garlington on their 61st wedding anniversary.
Courtesy of John Garlington

Feds Drop Terroristic Threat Charge Against 83-Year-Old Vet

The prosecutor took one look at 83-year-old veteran John Garlington and, within minutes, agreed that he was probably not capable of carrying out the “terroristic threat” he stood accused of making.

Garlington had not had a full night's sleep in three months, kept awake thinking about this very court date. He started tossing and turning after a July phone call with the Houston VA Michael E. DeBakey Center dental office went south, landing him in federal court yesterday.

In July, a VA secretary called to tell Garlington that his dentist appointment was being rescheduled — for the third time. Garlington had been living for months with toothaches and daily irritation in his gums because of a bridge that didn't fit properly in his mouth — one a VA dentist built to keep his front tooth in place. The secretary told him he would have to wait until December 7 to get it fixed, nearly a year after it was first put in his mouth. And so Garlington replied, “It looks to me like I need to come up there and see if I can't shake things up.”

He hung up before he could say anything more, but minutes later, a VA investigator called him back and started quizzing him about what had happened. As the Houston Chronicle first reported this week, the VA secretary had told security that Garlington had threatened to bring a gun and shoot up the office. When the investigator asked if he had any weapons, Garlington replied, “Yes, I've got two pistols and a concealed handgun license.”

Two weeks later, Garlington, both a Navy and an Army veteran, received a letter in the mail from the U.S. District Court informing him of the terroristic threat charge — a class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $5,000 fine — and his court date. He did not tell his wife for more than a month, not wanting to worry her. The former pastor, real estate agent and Shell employee had planned to represent himself, bringing his own pastor as a character witness. But four days before the hearing, family convinced him to get a lawyer.

And when they showed up for court on October 13, the charge was immediately dismissed. “When he got to court,” his attorney, Chris Downey, said, “it was pretty apparent that there was another side of the story — our side of the story — and the prosecutor was willing to concede there was a high likelihood that there had been some confusion.”

Garlington was born with a missing left eardrum and, in his old age, is severely hearing impaired. He is soft-spoken and talks with a deep drawl that, on the phone, might easily allow a flustered secretary to mistakenly hear “shake things up” as “shoot things up,” Downey explained.

“I'm the one who got shook up over this, if anybody did," Garlington said.

He expects he can get his tooth and bridge fully fixed in the next nine months. He also wishes the dental office had a customer service form he could fill out.

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