Courts & Crime

Plea deal lessens sentence for soldier who killed Fresno native

Rick Bulmer was killed by a fellow U.S. Army soldier, George D.B. MacDonald, who has received a lesser sentence following a plea agreement.
Rick Bulmer was killed by a fellow U.S. Army soldier, George D.B. MacDonald, who has received a lesser sentence following a plea agreement. MCT

The aspiring young soldier and Eagle Scout who killed Fresno, Calif., native Rick Bulmer in a Fort Benning barracks should eventually gain his freedom, following a plea deal made final in a military courtroom.

In exchange for pleading guilty to unpremeditated murder, George D.B. MacDonald received a 45-year sentence that makes him eligible for parole, potentially, within a relatively few years.

“My brother bears a deep burden of guilt and remorse for this life-changing event that had a devastating effect on two families,” MacDonald’s half sister, Paige MacDonald, said in an e-mail Friday. “But he did not intend for this to happen. This is not who he is.”

But members of Bulmer’s family, who flew out to Georgia from California’s San Joaquin Valley for the at-times highly emotional Sept. 8 hearing, decried the reduction in MacDonald’s sentence from the original life without parole.

“We’re angry. We’re very, very angry,” Bulmer’s mother, Wendy Smith, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I could have just stayed home, and they could have punched me in the face.”

George MacDonald was 19, and Bulmer was 23, at the time of the unprovoked knife attack on May 18, 2008. A one-time Madera High School student, Bulmer was married and in the first few days of the Army training he had anticipated for many years.

MacDonald, who was on track toward attending the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, said at the time that his mind snapped under the influence of the smoking cessation drug Chantix.

A “black box” warning imposed the year after Bulmer’s death cautions Chantix users to be on the lookout for signs of hostility or agitation, adding that those “who feel like hurting themselves or someone else should stop taking the medicine and call their health care professional right away.”

A court-martial panel nonetheless found MacDonald guilty of first-degree murder in 2009. Represented by defense attorney William E. Cassara, MacDonald appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Last year, the military appellate court in a unanimous decision threw out MacDonald’s conviction, concluding that the trial judge should have instructed the court-martial panel about the defense of “involuntary intoxication.”

“Several experts provided some evidence that Chantix affected (MacDonald’s) ability to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his acts,” the appellate court noted.

In a statement last year, Pfizer, the manufacturer of Chantix, said it was "an important, effective, FDA-approved treatment option for adult smokers who want to quit” and noted that it is “approved for use in more than 100 countries.”

The appellate court’s action effectively set the stage for further plea bargaining that would avoid the need for a new trial.

Accompanied by her son, daughter and son-in-law, Smith flew back to Fort Benning last Sunday for a court hearing she thought might last three days. Instead, the hearing that began about 8 a.m. on Tuesday concluded about 7 p.m. the same day.

MacDonald, wearing his Army uniform, recounted for the judge his version of what happened. Smith said MacDonald’s statement included the declaration that Chantix had nothing to do with the murder.

“They were dropping bombs on us left and right,” Smith said. “It was all a farce.”

Smith testified about the loss of her son, while a U.S. Disciplinary Barracks Leavenworth psychiatrist testified on MacDonald’s behalf during the sentencing phase. Other witnesses weighed in, as well, before the military judge announced the sentence.

“We are looking forward and preparing for his parole, where we know he can become a positive, contributing member to society again,” Paige MacDonald said. “He can still do some good.”

Because of the time he has already served, MacDonald is eligible for his first parole hearing in about another three years. If he’s denied, he can try again within another 10 years. Smith said she’ll be doing what she can to keep him behind bars.

“I’m going to write the highest general I can,” Smith said. “I want him to have his original sentence.”