U.S. soldiers face murder charges in deaths of Afghan civilians

Seattle TimesAugust 25, 2010 

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. — In one of the most serious war crimes cases to emerge from the nine-year war in Afghanistan, five U.S. soldiers from a Stryker brigade in the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division have been charged with murder for allegedly killing three Afghan civilians.

While they were on patrol, the soldiers threw grenades at two of the Afghans and shot them, according to charging documents. The third civilian also was shot, and anyone who dared to report the events was threatened with violence, according to statements made to investigators.

The accused soldiers are with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., Some 3,700 soldiers in the brigade were deployed throughout southern Afghanistan, involved both in combat and in wide-ranging efforts to open schools, train Afghan forces, improve agriculture and take other measures to win the support of civilians.

All five accused soldiers are awaiting court-martial proceedings, and their families have retained civilian attorneys to aid in their defense. If convicted, they face the possibility of life imprisonment or death.

The Seattle Times has reviewed court documents filed by a defense attorney with a U.S. Army magistrate that summarize some of the evidence in the case. The Times also has interviewed attorneys for three of the defendants. The documents provide new insight into how the alleged murder plot may have evolved, but they offer few clues about the soldiers’ motives.

Allegations of drug use

The plot came to the attention of the Army in May, according to court documents. Army officials were investigating an assault on an enlisted man who’d informed on soldiers smoking hashish when an informant told investigators that he'd heard other soldiers talk about civilian killings.

The original murder charges were filed in June. At the request of The Seattle Times, Joint Base Lewis-McChord late Tuesday afternoon released additional charges that have been filed against the five soldiers, including conspiracy to commit murder and, for three of the soldiers, use of a controlled substance.

One of the accused soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, a 22-year-old from Wasilla, Alaska, had a brutal year in Afghanistan, where he was exposed to four explosions that caused traumatic brain injury, said his attorney, Michael Waddington.

To help him remain in Afghanistan, Morlock was prescribed a cornucopia of drugs that included anti-depressants, muscle relaxants and a sleep drug frequently used by soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Waddington said.

There was significant use of hashish and occasional opium use in Morlock's platoon, according to Waddington.

Morlock has played a major role in helping the Army develop the case. He’s given numerous details about his involvement in the killings and also implicated others. Waddington said he’d try to have those statements withdrawn because his client spoke while he was under the influence of the drugs he was taking for his battlefield injuries.

In May, Army medical staff decided to evacuate Morlock because of his head injuries. Shortly before his departure, investigators started questioning him about the civilian killings.

"Our position is that his statements were incoherent, and taken while he was under a cocktail of drugs that shouldn't have been mixed," Waddington said. "What he said is not consistent with other evidence that comes out of the case."

The alleged ringleader

In interviews with Army criminal investigators, several soldiers have portrayed Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont. as a ringleader. Gibbs, who like Morlock has been charged in all three killings, has denied any involvement.

Gibbs is a veteran of two previous combat tours, one in Afghanistan and a second in Iraq. In the fall, he joined the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, part of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division that went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, to replace a squad leader who’d been injured by an explosion.

Gibbs allegedly boasted about "stuff" he’d gotten away with in Iraq and discussed plans for killing Afghans with a small circle of soldiers, according to statements by other soldiers.

Last December, Gibbs began joking with other soldiers about how easy it would be to "toss a grenade" at Afghan civilians and kill them, according to statements fellow platoon members made to military investigators.

One soldier said it was a stupid idea. Another said he thought that Gibbs was "feeling out the platoon."

Others told investigators that Gibbs eventually turned the talk into action, forming what one called a "kill team" to carry out random executions of Afghans.

The first killing

The first murder allegedly occurred on January 15 during a patrol in the Afghan village of La Mohammed Kalay.

While some soldiers spoke with village elders, Morlock was assigned to security duty at the edge of a poppy field along with Pfc. Andrew Holmes from Boise, Idaho, one of the youngest and least experienced soldiers in the platoon.

Morlock, in his statement cited in court documents, said that an Afghan civilian named Gul Mudin emerged from the field and stopped behind a low wall that separated him from the soldiers. Morlock tossed a grenade that Gibbs had given to him over a wall to kill the man, according to Morlock's statement.

In his statement, Holmes said he then was ordered to fire over the wall. He was unsure whether he hit anyone.

Later that day, Morlock told Holmes that the killing was staged and unnecessary, according to Holmes.

Holmes, who’s charged with Morlock and Gibbs in that killing, also said that Morlock threatened his life if he told anyone.

Holmes' attorney, Daniel Conway, said his client wasn’t involved in the killings or part of the inner circle that plotted crimes.

"We're eager to move forward with this process to show the world that Pfc. Holmes is a good 19-year-old kid with a big heart that was fighting a difficult war," Conway said.

Army prosecutors allege that Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas, Nev. was involved with Morlock and Gibbs in the murder of the second Afghan, Marach Agah, in February.

The second killing

Morlock said that Gibbs shot Agah and then placed an AK-47 rifle by the corpse to make it appear to have been an act of self-defense, according to an attorney who’s examined his statement.

Morlock alleges that Wagnon was an accomplice.

However, other soldiers have contradicted Morlock’s statements, according to Colby Vokey, an attorney for Wagnon. Some soldiers have told investigators that they heard shots that might have indicated that the Afghan fired first.

Vokey said his client is innocent and has no knowledge of any murders.

The third killing

In the third killing, Morlock and Gibbs are accused of throwing a grenade at an Afghan named Mullah Adahdad, and then shooting him. Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla. also is charged in that killing.

Hearings are expected to start later this year.

The joint Army-Air Force base Tuesday also disclosed that charges have been filed against seven other soldiers that include impeding an investigation, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, unlawfully striking another soldier and conspiracy to commit assault and battery.

All the charges made public Tuesday stem from the initial investigation, as well as a related assault on a U.S. soldier, according to an Army official.

Col. Harry Tunnell, the commander of the 5th Brigade, interviewed in July, declined to comment on the criminal cases. But he noted that the brigade generated the investigation that led to the criminal charges, which he called “a good comment on how the system is supposed to work."

Passing notes in jail

All the accused soldiers were jailed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Several still share a common area and are allowed to talk with each other, provided that they don't mention anything concerning the upcoming trial.

Gibbs and Morlock, however, were locked in separate cells, and aren’t allowed to mingle or communicate with their fellow defendants.

Several weeks ago, Army officials discovered that the two men were exchanging notes. The notes were innocent communications, according to Waddington. Morlock talked about his difficulties reaching his attorney and their shared plight as Army prisoners.

"He said, 'maybe we should go down fighting like soldiers,' " Waddington said.

After Army officials found the notes, they transferred Morlock to a Navy brig in Bremerton, Wash.

(Seattle Times staff researcher David Turim contributed to this report. )

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