3rd day of Bales hearing focuses on Afghan village after slayings

Tacoma News TribuneNovember 8, 2012 

3:45 p.m. update: Today’s testimony concluded with a textile expert who said materials taken from a pillow in an Afghan house that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly assaulted matched fibers on the “cape” he wore the night he turned himself over to soldiers at his combat outpost.

The implication is that Bales was in the house and carried fibers with him back to Village Stability Platform Belambay.

Soldiers who took him into custody on the early hours of March 11 reported that Bales turned himself wearing a T-shirt, combat pants, a helmet, night vision goggles and what they described as a cape tied around his neck.

We received a witness list for tomorrow night’s live testimony from Kandahar Province. Two Afghan guards, two victims and four relatives of victims are scheduled to testify at the fifth day of Bales’ Article 32 hearing. The testimony will begin at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time.


2:45 p.m. update: An Army DNA examiner found blood stains from nine different people in the evidence investigators gathered from Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and the two Afghan villages he allegedly attacked in March.

Only one DNA match from those nine unidentified people shows up both in an Afghan home and on what was reported to be Bales’ equipment. DNA from two women and two men appears only on swabs taken from the villages of Alkozai and Najiban.

DNA from one women and two men shows up only on the weapons Bales allegedly carried on the night of the killings, and the clothes he allegedly wore.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys did not ask DNA examiner Christine Trapolsi to describe the person known as Male No. 5. Trapolsi works for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

Trapolsi also had DNA from the five Afghans Bales allegedly wounded in Alkozai. It did not match the DNA blood stains she tested on Bales’ clothing and weapons.

Defense attorney Emma Scanlan highlighted the gaps between the DNA collected on Bales’ gear and the evidence collected in the villages. Prosecutor Maj. John Riesenberg noted Trapolsi has tested only a fraction of the blood stains she has identified on Bales’ equipment.

Trapolsi also tested small blood stains on clothing of a sergeant whom soldiers at Bales’ outpost speculated was involved in the killings. Trapolsi said the blood was the sergeant’s.


So far, evidence of accomplice in killings appears weak

On Tuesday, we heard from a nervous specialist who acknowledged that he and three peers approached Army criminal investigators with a theory that a sergeant who was close to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales might have participated in the massacre of Afghan civilians in the village of Alkozai.

Their theory rested on a few facts:

1) Afghan National Army soldiers told Pfc. Derek Guinn that they saw two Americans walking into their combat outpost and one leaving on the night of the killings.* Bales allegedly left Village Stability Platform Belambay twice on March 11 to kill Afghans in two villages.

2) The sergeant who drew the suspicion of the junior soldiers appeared conspicuously clean and shaven about 3:30 a.m. when soldiers at Belambay realized Bales was missing. This stood out to the specialist because soldiers at Belambay had been growing beards. The sergeant should have had at least a month’s worth of facial hair, but he appeared to have a smooth face to the specialist.

3) Another soldier saw this sergeant dispose of a large garbage bag.

4) Soldiers in Bales’ platoon knew he was relatively close to this sergeant.

Yesterday, we heard from an Army criminal investigator who responded to the concerns of the junior soldier by gathering clothes from the sergeant. The clothes did not have blood on them.

Prosecutors also showed a photo of the sergeant taken two days after the killings. He had a full beard, one that looked like it had at least a month’s worth of growth.

We could hear more about multiple Americans being involved in the killings when Afghan witnesses start testifying Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Some have insisted in interviews with various media organizations that more than one American participated in the shootings. U.S. and Afghan investigators have rejected the multiple-soldier theory so far. It persists, partly because the violence in Alkozai and Najiban is so hard to comprehend.

The fourth day of testimony is expected to resume this afternoon with Army forensic experts.

And here’s our final take from Day 3.

* An earlier version of this story had Guinn’s testimony reversed. He testified that Afghan guards saw two Americans walking into Village Stability Platform Belambay, and one leaving. I had two going and one arriving in my first post this morning.

****************************************** Staff Sgt. Robert Bales deployed to Afghanistan in December as a respected and ambitious leader well on his way to a promotion.

He left the country four months later as an accused mass murderer who reportedly shot children in the head and left them for dead in an Afghan village.

Both storylines emerged Wednesday in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord during the third day of an evidence hearing that could shape a death penalty court-martial for the former Stryker soldier. Bales is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, and wounding six more Afghans in the early hours of March 11.

The first two days of the so-called Article 32 hearing focused on what Bales’ fellow soldiers observed that night at their remote outpost, called Village Stability Platform Belambay.

On Wednesday, a medic gave the first glimpse of what the alleged rampage looked like on the Afghan end of the attack.

Maj. Travis Hawks was on a medical team that treated Bales’ first alleged victims – five villagers who appeared at an American forward base called Zangabad, about 20 to 30 kilometers from the Belambay outpost.

The first victim that night was a girl Hawks figured was younger than 10. She had a wound to her head, was unresponsive and appeared to have brain matter in her hair.

During triage, Hawks designated her as “expecting” – as in not expected to survive.

A teenager had gunshot wounds to her chest. She would not let male Army doctors touch her until a female soldier talked with her. She wound up getting treatment at a larger NATO hospital, where doctors found wounds to her groin and buttocks in addition to her bleeding chest.

One older male patient, Haji Mohammed Naim, had a gunshot wound to his neck. A boy, Rafiullah, had a grazing wound across his right thigh. And a younger boy, Sadiqullah, had a seemingly innocuous wound to his ear and the back of his head. It turned out to be more serious than Hawks initially thought, and the boy started vomiting while he awaited a medical evacuation flight out of Zangabad.

Hawks returned to the young girl, Zardana, once he cared for the other victims. He saw that she was still alive.

“We decided it was incumbent on us to do everything we could to help her,” he said.

She survived the night, and Hawks visited her once more at the NATO hospital in Kandahar before his Alaska-based Stryker brigade went home in April.

Bales allegedly left Belambay twice on the night of the slaughter, first attacking villagers in the village of Alkozai and then killing more Afghans in the village of Najiban.

The charges are hard to fathom for Lewis-McChord soldiers who knew Bales as an “old school” noncommissioned officer who took care of his guys and hoped to climb in rank.

Those qualities led Bales’ commanders to hand him a particularly hard assignment in southern Afghanistan because they believed he was among their top leaders.

The commanders needed to place infantry soldiers with a Special Forces team at Belambay, 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham said Wednesday. It was a job that required “our best guys,” he said.

Bigham was the senior noncommissioned officer in Bales’ B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. He had known Bales for several years, and believed he had the stuff to rise in rank to sergeant first class.

That position would have made him the senior noncommissioned officer over a 40-soldier platoon. Bales earnestly wanted the promotion and talked about it often.

Bales missed the cut for that coveted promotion in 2011, but Bigham set him up to rise in rank by giving him extra responsibility on the Afghanistan tour.

“I was trying to groom him to make that next step,” Bigham said. “I thought he was very capable.”

Bigham last saw Bales at Kandahar Air Field where Bales waited to be sent to a military prison. The 39-year-old soldier from Lake Tapps seemed remorseful. He pointed to the 2nd Infantry Division patch he and Bigham both wear on their uniforms.

“I know this means something to you guys,” Bales told Bigham, according to a statement a prosecutor read and Bigham confirmed.

Also Wednesday, two Army criminal investigators outlined their efforts to investigate the killings. It took them three weeks to visit Alkozai and Najiban because of security concerns prompted by outraged villagers who had already killed one Afghan soldier.

Special Agent Matthew Hoffman acknowledged to defense attorneys that evidence could have been degraded in the three weeks between the killings and his visit on April 2.

Another special agent, Trayce Lang, catalogued evidence soldiers at Belambay gathered from Bales. She found blood on what was reported to be his pants, T-shirt, gloves belt, boots, boxers, rifle, pistol and grenade belt.

Bales’ hearing is scheduled to resume Thursday afternoon with testimony from Army forensic experts. Live testimony from Afghan witnesses is expected to begin late Friday and stretch into the weekend.

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