Years of pretending he was a federal law enforcement agent and Army Special Ops sergeant who earned the Purple Heart medal ended Thursday when a South Florida man admitted his deceit in federal court.
Simon Emilio Zablah, 28, who lived in Broward County, pleaded guilty to two counts of impersonating a federal officer and one count of credit card fraud.
Records show Zablah went AWOL from the U.S. Army less than two weeks after he enlisted in January 2005. He was discharged later that year on "other than honorable conditions," prosecutors said.
Investigators from the FBI and U.S. Department of Defense said Zablah embarked on a complicated life of deception, convincing many people he had survived being wounded in action and earned the prestigious Purple Heart.
Investigators said he told many people he was a military veteran and a law enforcement agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He also claimed to be working on a top-secret classified mission as a member of the U.S. Department of Defense's Special Ops forces.
Zablah frequently wore a military uniform, festooned with honors and badges, that got him special treatment, including free meals from some restaurants, according to court records. Agents found a fabricated card in his wallet that identified him as a Special Ops sergeant.
Authorities said he posted comments and photographs on social media websites that indicated he was a decorated military veteran and masqueraded as a war hero who had earned multiple military honors and a Combat Action Badge.
He left for work each day dressed in shirts that bore the words "FEDERAL AGENT" and often wore tactical law enforcement and military equipment, according to court records.
Handcuffed, shackled and dressed in dark blue jail scrubs, Zablah politely answered U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hopkins' questions Thursday in federal court in West Palm Beach.
"Guilty, Your Honor," Zablah replied three times in response to each charge.
The maximum punishment for the offenses is 16 years in federal prison, but the prosecution and defense have agreed to recommend Zablah serve a year and a day in prison and receive mental health treatment.
Senior U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley will make the final decision when he sentences Zablah early next year.
Zablah's lawyer Assistant Federal Public Defender Neison Marks declined to comment Thursday, but he previously said in court that Zablah has suffered from emotional and psychological problems for years and knows he needs counseling and mental health treatment.
Zablah admitted he pretended he was a U.S. Special Ops sergeant to get out of a $205 speeding ticket in April in Hollywood. The officer who stopped him gave him a written warning instead of a ticket because he showed the officer a fake military card.
He also admitted he lied and claimed he was a U.S. Army Reserve officer in April 2013 to help get him a job as a call representative with a Plantation uniform supply company in 2013.
"ln fact, l was a soldier in the United States Army from January 13, 2005 through January 25, 2005, at which time I deserted ... l received no awards or medals from the United States Army. I have never been in any way associated with United States Special Operations, the United States Army Reserve or any other branch of the United States military. I have also never been employed as or otherwise associated with any type of law enforcement, state or federal," according to the written plea agreement Zablah signed.
Zablah also admitted he used a credit card number he obtained from a customer of the Plantation company in August 2013 to make six fraudulent purchases, totaling $3,669. The items he bought included a computer and were shipped to the Fort Lauderdale address where he lived at the time. The company fired him.
Investigators began looking into Zablah's activities after his July arrest on a state domestic violence charge in July. Hollywood police arrested him after his pregnant girlfriend said he tried to strangle her during an argument in the apartment they shared. He was released on bail with an electronic monitor while the state charge was pending.
A month later, Zablah cut off his electronic monitor and fled to El Salvador after federal agents tried to question him about the impersonation allegations. Though he is a U.S. citizen who was born in New York, authorities said he later told some people he was planning to return to South Florida, perhaps by being smuggled through Mexico.
He was arrested Oct. 21 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when authorities learned he had booked a return flight from El Salvador, prosecutor Carolyn Bell said. Zablah agreed to plead guilty less than a month later.
Authorities who searched his home and found military awards, body armor, military uniforms, hydration packs and other military equipment and a collection of Airsoft rifles and pistols, which authorities say look like genuine firearms but fire pellets and other projectiles at non-lethal speeds that can cause injury.
Before he fled, Zablah was living with a roommate he met on a Facebook group for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court records.
If Zablah pleads guilty to the state charge in the next few weeks or months, prosecutors will recommend he serve his punishments for all the offenses at the same time.