Posted on Tue, Jul. 15, 2008
last updated: October 28, 2010 12:01:09 PM
Dr. Yasser Salihee's body lay in his compact car on a busy Baghdad street for everyone to see.
The doctor, employed as a journalist, was shot by an American soldier who claimed that Salihee refused to slow down and who believed he presented a threat.
Though the details are disputed, the results were not: The June 2005 shooting outraged the very population the military is trying to win over.
"Before the accident I loved the Americans ... but after the accident, I hate all the Army," Salihee's widow, Raghad Al-Jabar Al wazan, also a medical doctor, told The Sacramento Bee. "All my neighbors were hating the Americans."
The shooter seemed beyond suspicion, with a resume fit for a character from a John Wayne movie: son of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot, former elite Army Ranger, sniper team leader, accomplished hunter and marksman, aspiring wilderness guide with a trunk full of awards and a small fan club of admiring young soldiers.
"This kid was a good soldier," said former Louisiana National Guard Maj. Andre Vige, who conducted an administrative inquiry into the shooting. "Good outfit. Good guys. One of the premier combat brigades of the National Guard. They were the standard bearer."
But a yearlong examination by The Bee found that the shooter, Staff Sgt. Joseph J. Romero, brought a long, troubled past with him to Iraq, and the Guard unit Vige praised was riddled with misfits, drug users and soldiers with criminal records - at least two of them former mental patients.
Vige, whose full-time job is selling oil field equipment, had no experience investigating homicides as a law enforcement officer, had no access to key evidence and was unaware of Romero's background when he decided not to recommend a more detailed criminal investigation into the shooting.
Romero is one of more than 70 soldiers and Marines, The Bee examination found, with questionable backgrounds who were linked to incidents in the military, most occurring in Iraq. The Bee examination covered only a fraction of the more than 1.4 million people in uniform - about 145,000 serving in Iraq - and was conducted largely without the sophisticated criminal databases available to the military.
Romero's history was similar to that of many of the others in The Bee examination: financial difficulties, domestic troubles, minor but persistent criminal histories, allegations of substance abuse - or combinations of the four.
When civilian shootings do not result in criminal charges, the identity of the shooter generally is protected by the military. But in Romero's case, a Salon.com reporter embedded himself in the 256th Brigade Combat Team to identify him. The Bee uncovered hundreds of pages of records and other information on Romero and his unit not previously made public in reports by Salon and National Public Radio.
"CID (Army Criminal Investigation Command) had a long rap sheet on him," said Col. John Dunlap of the Louisiana National Guard, who supervised two drug investigations of Romero in Iraq. "There was a ton of stuff, and it was like he'd slip out every time. Nothing would happen to him."
When he shot Salihee, Romero was under investigation for selling cocaine, military records show, and days before the shooting, Romero threatened to kill a fellow soldier who reported him to CID.
Twenty-one days after the shooting, the drug allegations prompted the Army to strip Romero of his leadership, bar him from missions and take away his large-caliber sniper rifle.
"An individual who is using controlled substances is not in the best possession of his faculties, able to protect others as a sniper is required to do, or protect himself," a military judge said, in ruling that the action against Romero did not constitute unfair pretrial punishment.
The Bee made numerous attempts to seek Romero's comments, sending Federal Express packages to him and his attorney and making two trips to Louisiana. Romero, 36, agreed to a meeting in January, but when a reporter and photographer arrived at his family's home, they found only his stepfather, mother and attorney there.
Frank R. Durand, retired from the Louisiana State Police and currently a lieutenant assigned to the evidence department of the local Sheriff's Office, said his stepson had changed his mind and "there will be no comment."
TURBULENT PATH TO SERVICE
The earliest public criminal record on Romero in his hometown of Lafayette shows that on April 15, 1990, he was charged in municipal court with simple assault along with his friend, Michael Wayne Boleyn, Jr., who was charged with battery.
Ten months later, on Feb. 14, 1991, Lafayette Parish sheriff's detectives learned that Romero was visiting gun dealers to price a stolen shotgun. Five days later, sheriff's records show, Romero told detectives he got the shotgun from Boleyn in exchange for a deer hunting stand, a water slide and a pair of rubber boots.
Authorities subsequently accused Boleyn in a string of residential burglaries that included the shotgun theft and, Boleyn said, he agreed to join the Louisiana National Guard at the suggestion of law enforcement officers. As a result, he said, the prosecutor dropped six of the eight burglary charges, and he was sentenced to five years' probation.
Boleyn, during an interview at his home near Lafayette, said he and Romero had been close friends. He claimed the two had committed the burglaries together and that he has been angry ever since because he took all the blame.
"Joe was in it just as much as me," Boleyn said. "Nothing happened to him."
Carrol Clavelle, who investigated the burglaries as a detective for the local Sheriff's Office, said Romero provided valuable information about the thefts, which was one of the reasons he wasn't charged with possession of stolen property.
"I assume (Romero) knew it was stolen," said Clavelle, now a special investigator for the local district attorney. "I could have charged him."
Clavelle said he also knew that Romero's stepfather worked for the sheriff, but said that didn't influence his investigation. Romero's stepfather, Clavelle said, told him that Romero "was trying to straighten up his life."
On Feb. 5, 1991, five days after Clavelle was assigned to the burglary case, Romero entered the Army.
THE 'JUAREZ RANGERS'
Romero's Army career soared in the months following his enlistment, and he became a member of the elite 75th Army Ranger Regiment, assigned to Fort Benning, Ga.
His career crashed even faster.
As tensions mounted in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the summer of 1993, Romero and other Rangers trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. During a break in training, Romero and other Rangers crossed the border into Juarez.
Donald "Donnie" Lee Thomas, Romero's supervisor then, said the Rangers were ordered not to go to Mexico, but he drove Romero and several others to Juarez. He knew he couldn't stop them, he said, so he sought to ensure their safe return.
Discipline was swift and harsh.
Col. Danny McKnight, now retired, said he forbade any of the 35 or so Rangers who had violated his order from deploying to Somalia. Rangers who obeyed his orders were sent to reinforce Rangers who had just fought the now-famous Battle of Mogadishu, subject of the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
That battle made Rangers famous everywhere; the trip to Mexico made Romero and the others infamous among follow Rangers, who dubbed them, "The Juarez Rangers."
Many of the disciplined soldiers left the Rangers altogether, but some, including Romero, were accepted into a platoon of misfits at the Ranger school, assigned to play enemy soldiers but no longer eligible to deploy as real Rangers.
"When I got there, there was a lot of -- how should I say -- ash and trash," recalled former 1st Sgt. Sean T. Kelly, who took over the platoon in 1994 on a mission to rid it of drug users.
Pretending to be enemy soldiers in a non-deployable unit was akin to being demoted to the practice squad. The demotion was demeaning, especially after other Rangers returned from Somalia.
"I remember crying when they came back," former Ranger Matthew Harmon said, adding that he and Romero discussed their anger. "I remember going a little crazy."
Harmon said he and Romero smoked marijuana together occasionally. Sgt. Kelly, he said, targeted them for drug use, and an Army investigator questioned him specifically about Romero's use.
"You saw a lot of drinking," Harmon said. "There were a lot of freaking emotions that were unresolved for a lot of people."
ALLEGATIONS IN MICHIGAN
Drug allegations against Romero grew more serious after he left Fort Benning.
At Fort Richardson, Alaska, on Oct. 10, 1996, he was identified as the target of an Army criminal investigation into cocaine use, but records show he was not charged due to a lack of evidence. And in the tiny town of Newaygo, Mich., where Romero lived for about two years after leaving the Army in 1999, several people told The Bee that Romero openly used drugs, including methamphetamine, and was involved in drug sales.
Dean Allen Robinson, identified by Michigan law enforcement authorities as an associate of a Latino drug kingpin, said during an interview at the Michigan state prison in Carson City that Romero worked for him in his logging business, and that he regularly supplied Romero with drugs and used drugs with him. Romero, Robinson said, also helped him prepare drugs for sale in exchange for free samples.
Romero and the 21-year-old Louisiana woman who moved to Michigan with him also had financial problems. In November 2001, they were the subjects of a complaint filed in the judicial district court in White Cloud, Mich., for $984 in unpaid rent. They subsequently moved into a mobile home and quit paying the rent, said the landlord, Mark Presler, who lives with Robinson's sister.
After he returned to Louisiana, Romero's relationship with his girlfriend ended, but his financial problems continued and he became the target of a paternity case that would linger for six months before being dismissed.
'UNIT HAS A DRUG PROBLEM'
In May 2004, Romero entered the Louisiana National Guard and, later that year, headed to Iraq. Within days of his arrival, he was accused of selling Valium.
"I was offered Valiums by Sgt. Romero," said an October 2004 handwritten statement to Army investigators from Spc. Jeremy L. Breaux obtained by The Bee.
Romero denied the allegations, said Col. Dunlap of the Louisiana National Guard, but his superiors refused to prosecute, calling Romero "a superstar."
Still, the allegations helped expose a larger drug problem within the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
"The unit has a drug problem," Army prosecutor Capt. Margaret Kurz said during a court-martial of one of its members.
Records obtained by The Bee of all disciplinary actions against soldiers of the 256th in Iraq show more than 400 soldiers accused of misconduct -- at least 85 for drug-related offenses -- within the unit, whose makeup is roughly half Louisiana National Guard members. Dunlap, however, attributed the number to more vigilance and the large number of lawyers in the unit.
Like Romero, several of those accused had histories that predated their deployment to Iraq.
Spc. John M. Murphy, for example, was well-known to law enforcement officers in Louisiana, where he had a criminal record that included battery before being prosecuted on drug charges in Iraq.
"I'm surprised the military took him," Louisiana sheriff's Detective Tom Harless said. "It's ridiculous."
Prior to being accused of drug possession in Iraq, Coby Otterstatter was in drug treatment in Louisiana, where he was found by police with drugs in his pocket after urinating on merchandise at a Rite Aid. He died of a drug overdose after returning from Iraq.
Pvt. James A. Vige, not related to the investigator with the same last name, was found in Iraq lying on a bathroom floor with a syringe next to his needle-marked arms. Vige had previously been arrested by Fullerton police for showing up at a military post under the influence of drugs, with a syringe in his helmet bag.
His sister, Sheena Vige of Arnaudville, La., provided documents indicating Vige subsequently was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit in Louisiana -- one of four times, she said, that he was hospitalized for mental problems in the months before his Iraq deployment.
"I shouldn't have been over there with a gun," Vige told The Bee. "I've been in psychiatric treatment and involved in drugs, and they knew all about it."
DRUG PROBE DRAWS CLOSER
Pvt. Vige's overdose led straight to Romero.
"Vige started naming names," Dunlap said, adding that the list was 20 names long and "Romero was on the list."
This time Romero's denials didn't stop the Army.
On June 10, 2005, just hours after Vige's overdose, soldiers of the 256th gathered for a barbecue outside Romero's trailer, where he got a call with news of the investigation.
"He was worried, nervous ... paranoid," Staff Sgt. Don A. Gatheright would later testify, adding that Romero was "wigging out."
Gatheright said he agreed to hide Romero's marijuana in the unit's arms room, where Gatheright worked.
When investigators searched Romero's room, they found only a small bottle of prescription amphetamine salts in the bottom drawer of his nightstand. The drug is used to treat attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, and side effects can include loss of motor control. People with a history of drug abuse are warned not to take the drug.
That night, court-martial records say, Romero threatened to kill Vige and he also threatened Murphy, believing they had implicated him.
The drug allegations would prompt superiors to pull Romero from missions, strip him of his leadership and take away his .50-caliber sniper rifle.
"A .50-caliber sniper weapon has an extremely long, effective range and that needs to be done carefully and with good judgment," Military Judge Col. Patrick Reinert said in upholding the decision to take away the rifle before trial. "If the accused was in any way using controlled substances and was placed on a sniper mission, that would place not only the unit in harm's way, but also place the accused in harm's way."
But 21 days before his superiors took away that rifle, Romero had gone on another mission.
WIDOW ANGRY, FRUSTRATED
Taking advantage of a rare Friday off from his job as a translator and correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Dr. Yasser Salihee went for a haircut. His widow, Raghad, who conducted her own informal inquiry into the shooting, told The Bee that the shop apparently was closed, so her husband headed home, stopping to pick up chips, gum and a soft drink for his 2-year-old daughter, Danya.
He drove toward an intersection patrolled by a small group of Iraqi soldiers and Louisiana National Guard members, including Romero, guarding a building being searched.
"The driver did not see the American forces because they were hiding behind trees, residential houses and a shopping area," the owner of a nearby ice kiosk told Iraqi authorities.
Seeing Salihee's white Daewoo Espero approach the intersection rapidly, an Iraqi soldier ran out, trying to stop him.
"During this time an American sniper fired toward the driver and killed him," the soldier told Iraqi police.
The fatal round hit Salihee in the head.
Maj. Andre Vige, the officer assigned to conduct an administrative inquiry, wrote in his report that Salihee ignored pleas by soldiers to stop and kept driving toward Romero, who said in a written statement that he fired a warning shot and a shot into the car's engine. At that point, the report says, another soldier shot out the right front tire, but Salihee kept driving, swerving around a parked vehicle as he continued to move toward the soldiers.
Vige suggested that Salihee may have been distracted and didn't see the soldiers.
Salihee's widow told The Bee that when her brother arrived at the accident scene, he found Salihee's foot pressed against the brake, which she believes indicates he may have been trying to stop when he was shot.
Raghad, who remarried and is living in New York, remains bitter. She said Vige visited her after the shooting and handed her an envelope with $5,000 inside, $2,500 for the loss of the car and $2,500 for the loss of her husband.
"They sent me the same money for Yasser and the car," she said. "I told him, 'You tell me sorry and then you tell me that my husband is the cost of the car.' "
Less than three months after the shooting, on Sept. 9, 2005, Romero was sentenced to 14 months' confinement and given a bad conduct discharge, convicted of selling cocaine, possessing other drugs, obstructing justice and communicating a threat.
During an interview in his Lafayette-area office, Vige said he never saw the complete autopsy report, never got the bullet for ballistic tests and wasn't able to inspect the vehicle until two weeks after the shooting, after it had been washed.
Vige also said he was not aware that Romero was under a criminal investigation at the time he shot Salihee, and he never considered doing a background check on Romero because he "considered it irrelevant."
"Every time I met with Romero he was extremely professional," said Vige, now retired from the National Guard. "This was a stand-up soldier."
Though Vige disputed many of Raghad's claims, he agreed that what happened immediately after the shooting enraged local residents.
The American soldiers left quickly, leaving Salihee's body inside the car, unguarded, and allowing evidence to become contaminated. The platoon leader told Vige that a commander, code-named "Bandit 6," ordered the platoon from the area, but Vige said Bandit 6 told him he gave no such order.
"How would you like it if an outsider came to your neighborhood and shot your neighbor and left?" Vige said. "They won't forget."
Lee Robert Cox
Date of birth: 6/5/86 Joined: Louisiana National Guard, in 2004
Pre-Military: Kicked out of grade school after claiming he had cocaine. Simple battery. Hospitalized four times following drug overdoses. Treated for anxiety.
In Iraq: Convicted of selling drugs, theft and disobeying order.
Post-Iraq: Felony possession of marijuana, possession of stolen property, burglary, battery, theft.
Coby James Otterstatter
Date of birth: 11/16/81 Joined: Louisiana National Guard, in 2003
Pre-Military: Charged with battery on a fellow student in 1999. Found guilty of criminal damage to property in 2000. Traffic citations in 2000, 2001. Found guilty in 2001 of drunken driving accident that left a young woman with facial injuries. Arrested but not prosecuted in 2002 on charges of possession of drugs and disturbing the peace after he was found urinating on drugstore shelves.
In Iraq: Reduced in rank for possession of drugs in 2004. Sentenced to 30 days for bribery in 2005.
Post-Iraq: Died of a drug overdose in Louisiana in 2006.
Joseph Jude Romero
Date of birth: 10/22/71 Served: in Army, 1991-2001 Joined: Louisiana National Guard, 2004
Pre-Military: Simple assault. Civil defendant in auto accident case. Interviewed by authorities for pricing a stolen shotgun, but he implicates a friend and is not charged.
Pre-Iraq: Kicked out of active Rangers for going to Mexico to party while on leave. Officially named a suspect in Army cocaine investigation.
Between Army, Guard Service: Accused by two landlords of failing to pay rent. Has other financial problems. Named in two minor complaints alleging confrontations. Named in paternity case, later dropped. Several people say they used drugs with him or otherwise link him to drug use.
In Iraq: Accused of violating order by having female in barracks. Accused of selling drugs. In separate, subsequent case, convicted of selling drugs. Also accused of threatening to kill a fellow soldier and separately of threatening a soldier. Found guilty of the threat that did not involve a death threat. Kills an Iraqi doctor, Yasser Salihee, in Baghdad, but Army declines to conduct a criminal investigation.
Sources: Bee reporting, U.S. military records