NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Brandon Mayfield told his aunt, Beth (Mayfield) Vannatta of Halstead, that he would “give ’em hell” during a Bethel College convocation Feb. 29, but then promised his mother, Avnelle Mayfield of Buhler, to go a little easier on his audience.
In the end, he related a deceptively mild story of mistaken identity and national security seemingly run amok.
Mayfield, an attorney now practicing civil and immigration law in the Portland, Ore., area, was born in Coos Bay, Ore., but grew up in Halstead. His brother, sister and father, custom combine operator Bill Mayfield, still live there, as do extended family members like his aunt, whom family and friends call “Piglet,” a retired art teacher and anti-war activist.
“It’s been a pleasant and wonderful experience to come back to central Kansas,” Mayfield told the Bethel College audience. “Driving from my mother’s home this morning, I passed the Buhler grade school, where I used to play on the playground. This was a unique and beautiful place to grow up, to be educated and nurtured.”
Mayfield recalled growing up on a farm, harvesting wheat with his father and beginning high school at Buhler before transferring to Halstead High School, from which he graduated, going on to Hutchinson Community College. He noted the symmetry of his speaking in “Krehbiel Auditorium” when there are Mennonite Krehbiels from Moundridge in his family background.
Despite Halstead’s reputation as “the biggest little city in Kansas,” Mayfield said, “it wasn’t big enough to hold this dreamer. I decided to join the Army, and I swore to defend the Constitution.” He eventually went into military intelligence and received top secret clearance. He won a scholarship to officer training school, eventually attaining the rank of second lieutenant. He served with a Patriot missile platoon in Bitburg, Germany.
In 1987, Mayfield went on a blind date with a young Egyptian woman named Mona, whom he ended up marrying. Shortly after their marriage, Mayfield converted to Islam. “I grew up with Methodist and Mennonite upbringing,” Mayfield said, adding that he had been “a Christian in name only.” For a time, science became his religion, he said. Then he found Islam. The word means “submission,” he said, “and I was looking for submission to a higher power.”
He decided to go to law school and picked Washburn University in Topeka. After he graduated, the family – he and Mona have three children – moved to Newport on the Oregon coast. They ultimately settled in the Portland area to have better access to a larger Muslim community.
This was not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Soon after Mayfield came to Portland, he was asked to represent a fellow Muslim, Jeffrey Battle, in a domestic dispute involving custody of Battle’s son. Battle later became much better known for being convicted and sentenced to prison for attempting to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11. Mayfield was not involved in that case.
Mayfield remembered once walking with Mona on the Portland boardwalk and talking about how beautiful the Pacific Northwest was and how lucky they were to live in such a great country. His wife was “a little wiser” than he, he said. She told him: “Sometimes you need to look again – things are not always what they seem.”
He would remember those words a few months later when he was looking down on that same boardwalk from the seventh floor of the Multnomah County Courthouse, where he was being held “in belly chains and shackles.”
On March 11, 2004, a number of bombs in backpacks, detonated by cell phones, went off in commuter trains coming into Madrid. Almost 200 people were killed, with around 1,700 injured. The bombings were quickly linked to an Islamic terrorist cell based in Morocco. When partial fingerprints found on a bag of detonators were circulated around the world, the FBI’s fingerprint identification system turned up a number of possible matches. The fourth on the list was Brandon Mayfield. His prints were likely on file, he said, because of the security clearance he got when serving in the military.
On May 4, the FBI arrested Mayfield, then 37, as a “material witness” in the Madrid train bombings, declaring they had determined “with 100 percent accuracy” that he was a match for the fingerprint. He learned later that he had been under surveillance, which showed him (as a practicing Muslim) going into a mosque and noted that his wife was Egyptian, he had a professional listing in a Muslim phone directory and he had defended Jeffrey Battle in a domestic case.
He was held for two weeks in lockdown, not allowed contact with his family, including his mother and brother Kent, who flew to Portland from Kansas. “I was subjected to daily strip searches,” he said. “I experienced sleep deprivation, shackles and unsanitary conditions.” He feared being spirited off to Guantánamo or a “secret detention facility” outside the country, he said.
On May 19, Spanish authorities announced that the fingerprints had been matched to a Moroccan national. A judge dismissed the case against Mayfield on May 24. The next day, the FBI issued a rare public apology. Subsequent lawsuits have resulted in a $2 million settlement between Mayfield and the FBI and the overturning of some provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
Mayfield believes to this day that he was targeted because of his religion. Robert Weaver, a 2007 Bethel graduate and law student at Washburn University, said in his introduction of Mayfield, “The Bush Administration believed it had found a domestic terrorist in Brandon Mayfield. He was an upstanding citizen who grew up on a farm near Halstead. He has done important [legal] work on behalf of children and families. He has been faithful to Islam and its universal principals of justice and human rights.”
Weaver was instrumental in getting Mayfield for Bethel’s convocation after Mayfield had been invited to speak at Washburn, his alma mater, earlier in the week.
“I have fond memories of [the year] 1984,” Mayfield said, “when I was [a senior] in high school, when rural high schools still had music and art and track programs, and all you needed to participate was your own brush or pair of running shoes. I think we’re now living in George Orwell’s 1984, with Big Brother watching everything, where something called the ‘Patriot’ Act strips you of your civil rights and where a war of occupation [in Iraq] is called Operation ‘Infinite Freedom.’
“I don’t want [what happened to me] to happen to you or your family,” Mayfield said. “We should be concerned as Americans when people are locked up for years with their constitutional rights denied. We don’t want to leave behind our hope and our morality.
“I leave you with the Muslim salutation, Salaam aleikum, I bid you peace … and, in the words of Eugene Debs, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.’”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.