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Once a hero, now a villain; vet charged with crime spree still behind bars

Some people see Juan Morales as a hero. To others, he’s a villain.

The 34-year-old Aurora native’s life story has already taken him from foreign battlegrounds to his current home — a suburban jail. He’s been credited with saving the lives of some, and he’s been accused of threatening the lives of others.

But soon, Morales’ fate could be decided in a series of courtrooms, starting with one in Will County. That’s where he was accused in 2017 of breaking into an empty home while heavily armed, days after he was profiled in the Chicago Sun-Times.

That confluence of events painted a portrait of a man who now seems to simultaneously occupy two conflicting social spaces. Morales once fought for his country on the front lines in Afghanistan. Now, he is accused of a crime spree that included a pair of armed robberies of gas stations, putting multiple lives in danger.

Morales’ own family is conflicted over the alleged events he says he does not remember. But in a pair of recent conversations with the Sun-Times, neither Morales nor a family member ducked responsibility.

His sister, Graciela Morales, fears an overly harsh prison sentence for her brother, and she acknowledged her family is torn between love and frustration. But she agrees her brother should be punished, appropriately, for what happened. She also said she feels sympathy for the people her brother allegedly victimized.

Graciela Morales

Graciela Morales said her family believes her brother must pay a price for his actions. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“My brother has PTSD,” Graciela said. “I’m sure they do, as well. … And for that reason, no, we don’t think my brother should just get away with it. Now they’re going to be suffering the same way he’s suffering. And it’s just a vicious circle.”

Meanwhile, Morales has been trying to choose a legal strategy after spending more than a year behind bars. But in a jailhouse interview last month, he summed up his situation with just a few words.

“I believe I’m accountable for my actions,” he said. “For sure.”

Wanted to make his parents proud

Juan and Graciela Morales grew up with two siblings in the western suburbs, where their parents settled after immigrating to the United States. Their father was once a McDonald’s factory worker, Graciela said. Now, he’s a property investor.

Today, Juan Morales has two boys of his own, ages 14 and 5.

Graciela remembers her brother suddenly insisted on joining the Army about a decade ago. After that, he hoped to become a police officer. His new career goals took the family by surprise, she said. But, “he was just ready.”

“Not ready to die, or anything like that,” Graciela said. “Just ready to fight. Just ready to do something with himself. Make his parents proud.”

Naturally, the family worried when Morales left for war. They had good reason. He told them he wanted to fight on the front lines, Graciela said. In a 2017 interview with the Sun-Times, he said he joined the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and wound up fighting battles nearly every day for four months.

Juan Morales

Juan Morales | Aurora police

He said he came home with the “knee of a 70-year-old.” But something else was off. Graciela said she noticed a change in her brother’s personality. She remembered him becoming aggravated when someone at the airport made a scene over lost luggage.

“He was angry with people being so spoiled,” Graciela Morales said.

In his most recent interview, Morales acknowledged that going to war makes one “humble, very humble.” And he said he had a tough time adjusting when the Army once let him briefly return home.

He said he had an easier time going back to Afghanistan.

‘On my bad days … I choose to drink’

Morales became one of the first six people to graduate from the Northern District of Illinois’ Veterans Treatment Court on Dec. 4, 2017. He said he wound up in the program after being caught on the grounds of Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital with a knife.

The graduation was “a good day,” Morales said. U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo presided, and Morales’ wife and kids attended the ceremony. He said he had the “important people in my life there.”

But not all was well. Morales said there are certain months out of the year that remind him of his most difficult experiences in Afghanistan. One is November. That’s because, in November 2009, an improvised explosive device killed his best friend.

“It didn’t hit home that you could lose your life until you lose somebody that you care for,” Morales explained.

The Sunday following the graduation, Morales said he left work, and he was “having a bad day.”

“On my bad days,” he said, “I choose to drink.”

He said he also added Xanax to the mix.

The next evening, around 9 p.m., a man wearing a dark coat walked into a 7-Eleven in the 1200 block of North Eola Road in Aurora, according to police reports. He wore his hood up over a dark baseball cap and held a bandana in front of his face.

He also wore a knee brace on his left leg, police said.

The man handed a note to the clerk, police said. It read, “I’m going to ask you one time only or you die give me the money!!!”

Police said the man then pulled a gun from his right front coat pocket and set it on the counter. Finally, the clerk took a cash tray out of a register, set it down and eventually loaded the money into a plastic bag. The intruder took the bag and left.

Surveillance video caught the whole thing, records show. In it, officers said they could see a red dot on the floor from a laser on the man’s gun.

The next morning, another robbery was reported less than five miles away in the 600 block of North Broadway. The person who called it in was crying so hard a dispatcher had trouble getting information, according to police reports.

Officers said they didn’t actually cross paths with Morales until roughly five hours later, when they were called to a home on West Partridge Drive in Plainfield.

Early that afternoon, a witness noticed a man pounding on the front door of a home there, police said. Then, the witness saw the man pick up a brick and walk to the back of the house.

When they got there, police noticed a broken window and heard someone inside. They surrounded the home, and the man eventually followed commands to leave the house. They said it was Morales.

Not only was he armed with a Glock 9 mm and a Smith & Wesson .38 Special, court records show, but police said they found a third gun and more ammunition in Morales’ car. In all, officers said Morales had “over 1,000 rounds.”

Graciela points out her brother had been working at a gun range at the time.

Facing felony charges in three counties

Morales said the two days “were a blur” after he took the Xanax.

But the result was sobering. Morales’ alleged crime spree spanned three counties. He now faces serious felony charges in Will, DuPage and Kane counties. Until recently, a trial had been set for this month in Will.

The victims in each case either could not be reached or declined to comment for this story. The state’s attorney’s offices in Will and Kane counties also declined to comment.

When Morales spoke to the Sun-Times in December, he was still considering his legal options. But when asked about the victims of the crimes he had been tied to, Morales said, “I’m sorry.” He said he “honestly” doesn’t remember what happened.

“I apologize for my actions, that’s for sure,” Morales said.

Now, the trial in Will County has been canceled.

Regardless, Morales said he wants to get further treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he’s already on medication. When he leaves prison, he said he also wants to talk to veterans.

He wants to help them avoid the turn his life story has taken.

“They teach you how to turn on the switch,” Morales said of the military.

“But they don’t teach you how to turn it off when you get back.”