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LOCAL NEWS: 'Grisliest allegations against US soldiers since 2001' on trial at Lewis-McChord

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Military law advocates are supporting the attempt of Pfc. Andrew Holmes of Boise to "force the Army to disclose photographs of an Afghan he allegedly killed in January," the News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) reported Wednesday.[1]  --  BACKGROUND:  Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise Idaho, is one of five soldiers charged in three killings by a self-appointed "kill team," rogue members of a platoon from the JBLM-based 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (the troubled unit has been renamed the 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division), that premeditatedly killed innocent Afghan civilians in what the Washington Post called "a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001."[2]  --  On Sept. 18, 2010, the Post reported that "Military officials say privately that they worry the hearings will draw further attention to the case, with photos and other evidence prompting anger among the Afghan civilians whose support is critical to the fight against the Taliban."  --  Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, of Billings, MT, the accused ringleader of a self-appointed "kill team," is charged in all three murders.  --  Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, of Wasilla, AK, also charged in all three killings, has named Gibbs as the instigator of the killings in a statement to prosecutors:  "Gibbs had pure hatred for all Afghanis and constantly referred to them as savages," the Post said in a Sept. 27, 2010, article.[3]  --  Spec. Michael S. Wagnon II of Las Vegas is charged in the second murder and also with possessing "a skull taken from an Afghan's corpse."  --  Specialist Adam Winfield, of Cape Coral, FL, whose parents say he tried to blow the whistle on the killers in February, after the first civilian had been killed, is nevertheless also charged in the third murder.  --  The U.S. Army said in charging documents that "Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones," Craig Whitlock of the Post said.[2]  --  Seven other soldiers have been charged with related crimes.  --  "Army officials have not disclosed a motive for the killings and macabre behavior [and] declined to comment on the case beyond the charges that have been filed . . . But a review of military court documents and interviews with people familiar with the investigation suggest the killings were committed essentially for sport by soldiers who had a fondness for hashish and alcohol," Whitlock said.  --  "The accused soldiers, through attorneys and family members, deny wrongdoing.  But the case has already been marked by a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations among the defendants as they seek to pin the blame on each other, according to documents and interviews."  --  The Post said that, according to investigators, when Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings arrived in the unit in late 2009, he told others "that it had been easy for him to get away with 'stuff' when he served in Iraq in 2004."  --  When one of the soldiers in the unit intimated in an online chat that Gibbs was "get[ting] away with murder," his father made strenuous efforts to alert Army authorities, but the JBLM command center "just kind of blew it off," in his words.  --  DEEPER BACKGROUND:  Whitlock also reported on other dangerous misconduct by members of the JBLM-based brigade, including an attempt by a 28-year-old soldier from the unit named Brandon Barrett who went AWOL and then died trying to massacre Americans in Salt Lake City's Grand America Hotel on Aug. 27, 2010.[4]  --  In a sense, all of these people are casualties of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan surge, Whitlock suggested:  "The 3,800-member brigade had trained for more than a year under the assumption that it would go to Iraq.  In February 2009, however, it received orders to go to Afghanistan instead.  With only a few months to prepare, the brigade -- named for the Army's eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles -- arrived in July 2009 and was thrust into the war's toughest fighting in southern Afghanistan. . . . 35 of its soldiers were killed in combat, six others died from accidents and other causes in Afghanistan, and 239 were wounded during its year-long deployment." ...


1.

GROUP SUPPORTS SOLDIER'S ARGUMENT FOR PHOTOGRAPHS

By Adam Ashton

News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
December 22, 2010

http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/12/22/1474972/group-supports-soldiers-argument.html


Military law advocates on Monday filed a brief to support a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier's push to force the Army to disclose photographs of an Afghan he allegedly killed in January.

Pfc. Andrew Holmes of Boise is one of five Stryker soldiers in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who are accused of murdering Afghan civilians during their deployment earlier this year.

His attorney wants the Army to release images Holmes and his platoon mates took during their patrols of Afghan casualties.

Officials decided to keep the images concealed at Lewis-McChord’s Criminal Investigations Division out of concern that the images could reflect negatively on the Army and incite violence against American soldiers.

At least one image is believed to show Holmes holding up the head of the Afghan who was killed during a January patrol, according to testimony at his Article 32 hearing last month.

The Army Court of Criminal Appeals halted proceedings against Holmes late last month when his attorney filed a motion arguing that the order to conceal photos prevented Holmes from submitting evidence that would have showed his bullets did not kill the Afghan.

At least two other soldiers fired weapons at the Afghan, according to testimony in court.

The National Institute for Military Justice this week lent its weight behind Holmes’ argument that the photos should be disclosed.

It took issue with the Army’s argument that the photos could tarnish the military’s image.

“The argument proves too much:  If the risk of harm to the armed forces’ reputation sufficed, practically every court-martial would be closed,” wrote attorneys from the National Institute for Military Justice.

The group’s attorneys joined Holmes’ argument that he could not present an adequate defense at his Article 32 hearing when an Army criminal investigator briefly described the image of Holmes posing with the Afghan casualty.

“The Limitation Order made it all but impossible for the defense to challenge the (Criminal Investigations Division) agent’s characterization of the photographs through cross-examination,” the attorneys wrote.

“Without having the photographs in hand, the defense would have been limited to a dry series of questions and answers regarding the contents of the photographs.  But that hardly is an adequate substitute for the pictures themselves.”

Army prosecutors last week submitted an argument to the appeals court contending that Holmes received a fair Article 32 hearing in compliance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The prosecutors said Holmes would have an opportunity to appeal the order concealing the photos at a later date, such as at a court-martial or at a subsequent appeal.

Holmes’ attorney, Dan Conway, is preparing a response to the prosecutors’ brief.

--Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it blog.thenewstribune.com/military

2.

MEMBERS OF STRYKER COMBAT BRIGADE IN AFGHANISTAN ACCUSED OF KILLING CIVILIANS FOR SPORT

By Craig Whitlock

Washington Post

September 18, 2010

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803935.html (includes link to photo gallery of accused soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, of Billings, MT, the accused ringleader who is charged in all three murders, Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, of Wasilla, AK, also charged in all three killings, Specialist Adam Winfield, of Cape Coral, FL, whose parents say he tried to blow the whistle on the killers but who is also charged with murder, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise Idaho, who is charged in the first killing but whose attorney has said he opened fire because he was ordered to do so, and Spec. Michael S. Wagnon II of Las Vegas, charged in the third murder and with possessing "a skull taken from an Afghan's corpse.")

AT JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, WASH. -- The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.

For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea.  Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay.  The "kill team" activated the plan.

One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground.  Then others opened fire.

According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001.  Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.

The subsequent investigation has raised accusations about whether the military ignored warnings that the out-of-control soldiers were committing atrocities.  The father of one soldier said he repeatedly tried to alert the Army after his son told him about the first killing, only to be rebuffed.

Two more slayings would follow.  Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May.  Seven other soldiers have been charged with crimes related to the case, including hashish use, attempts to impede the investigation and a retaliatory gang assault on a private who blew the whistle.

Army officials have not disclosed a motive for the killings and macabre behavior.  Nor have they explained how the attacks could have persisted without attracting scrutiny.  They declined to comment on the case beyond the charges that have been filed, citing the ongoing investigation.

But a review of military court documents and interviews with people familiar with the investigation suggest the killings were committed essentially for sport by soldiers who had a fondness for hashish and alcohol.

The accused soldiers, through attorneys and family members, deny wrongdoing.  But the case has already been marked by a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations among the defendants as they seek to pin the blame on each other, according to documents and interviews.

The Army has scheduled pre-trial hearings in the case this fall at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home of the Stryker brigade.  (The unit was renamed the 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, when it returned from Afghanistan in July.)  Military officials say privately that they worry the hearings will draw further attention to the case, with photos and other evidence prompting anger among the Afghan civilians whose support is critical to the fight against the Taliban.

THE 'KILL TEAM'


According to statements given to investigators, members of the unit -- 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment -- began talking about forming a "kill team" in December, shortly after the arrival of a new member, Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont.

Gibbs, whom some defendants have described as the ringleader, confided to his new mates that it had been easy for him to get away with "stuff" when he served in Iraq in 2004, according to the statements. It was his second tour in Afghanistan, having served there from January 2006 until May 2007.

The first opportunity presented itself Jan. 15 in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province.  Members of the 3rd Platoon were providing perimeter security for a meeting between Army officers and tribal elders in the village of La Mohammed Kalay.

According to charging documents, an Afghan named Gul Mudin began walking toward the soldiers.  As he approached, Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, threw the grenade on the ground, records show, to create the illusion that the soldiers were under attack.  [By a curious coincidence, in The Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells called the troglodyte cannibalistic race living underground in the England of 802,731 A.D. "morlocks, and the name "Gibbs" is associated with the CBS TV series "NCIS," in which protagonist Leroy Jethro Gibbs is a former Marine Scout Sniper and Military Police NCO and former juvenile delinquent who is suspected of murder while still in the Marine Corps.  --H.A.]

Pfc. Andrew H. Holmes, a 19-year-old from Boise, Idaho, saw the grenade and fired his weapon at Mudin, according to charging documents.  The grenade exploded, prompting other soldiers to open fire on the villager as well, killing him. 

In statements to investigators, the soldiers involved have given conflicting details.  In one statement that his attorney has subsequently tried to suppress, Morlock said that Gibbs had given him the grenade and that others were also aware of the ruse beforehand.  But Holmes and his attorney said he was in the dark and opened fire only because Morlock ordered him to do so.  [The name of "Holmes" will forever be associated with the greatest detective in fiction, Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from 1887 to 1827.  --H.A.]

"He was unwittingly used as the cover story," said Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney for Holmes.  "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Morlock, Holmes, and Gibbs have each been charged with murder in the shooting.  Attorneys for Morlock and Gibbs did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A FATHER'S WARNING


On Feb. 14, Christopher Winfield, a former Marine from Cape Coral, Fla., logged onto his Facebook account to chat with his son, Adam, a 3rd Platoon soldier who was up late in Afghanistan.  Spec. Adam C. Winfield confided that he'd had a run-in with Gibbs, his squad leader.  He also typed a mysterious note saying that some people get away with murder.

When his father pressed him to explain, Adam replied, "did you not understand what i just told you."  He then referred to the slaying of the Afghan villager the month before, adding that other platoon members had threatened him because he did not approve.  In addition, he said, they were bragging about how they wanted to find another victim.

"I was just shocked," Christopher Winfield said in a phone interview.  "He was scared for his life at that point."

The father told his son that he would contact the Army to intervene and investigate.  It was a Sunday, but he didn't wait.  He called the Army inspector general's 24-hour hotline and left a voice mail.  He called the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and left another message.  He called a sergeant at Lewis-McChord who told him to call the Army's criminal investigations division.  He left another message there.

Finally, he said, he called the Fort Lewis command center and spoke for 12 minutes to a sergeant on duty.  He said the sergeant agreed that it sounded as if Adam was in potential danger but that, unless he was willing to report it to his superiors in Afghanistan, there was little the Army could do.

"He just kind of blew it off," Christopher Winfield said.  "I was sitting there with my jaw on the ground."

Winfield said he doesn't recall the name of the sergeant he spoke with.  Billing records that he kept confirm that he called Army officials; he also kept copies of transcripts of Facebook chats with this son.  He said he specifically told the sergeant of his son's warning that more murders were in the works.

Army investigators have since taken a sworn statement from Christopher Winfield, as well as copies of his phone and Internet records.

OTHER KILLINGS


Eight days after Winfield tried to warn the Army, according to charging documents, members of the 3rd Platoon murdered someone else.

On Feb. 22, Marach Agha, an Afghan civilian, was killed by rifle fire near Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar province, where the 3rd Platoon was stationed.  The Army has released few details about the slaying but has charged Gibbs, Morlock, and Spec. Michael S. Wagnon II of Las Vegas with murder.

Wagnon has also been charged with possessing "a skull taken from an Afghan person's corpse."  He allegedly took the head sometime during January or February 2010, but court documents do not specify whether it belonged to the Afghan he is charged with killing.

An attorney for Wagnon, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan and also served in Iraq, did not return a call seeking comment.

More mayhem followed in March, when Gibbs, Wagnon, and three other soldiers -- Staff Sgt. Robert G. Stevens, Sgt. Darren N. Jones, and Pfc. Ashton A. Moore -- opened fire on three Afghan men, according to charging documents.  The documents do not provide basic details, such as the precise date of the shooting, the identities of the victims or whether they were wounded.

Members of the 3rd Platoon found their next victim on May 2, documents show.  Gibbs, Morlock, and Adam Winfield -- the son of the former Marine who said he tried to alert the Army three months earlier -- are accused of tossing a grenade and fatally shooting an Afghan cleric, Mullah Adahdad, near Forward Operating Base Ramrod.

Winfield's attorney, Eric S. Montalvo, said his client was ordered to shoot but fired high and missed.  He and Winfield's parents say they can't understand why the Army has charged their son, given that his father tried to warn officials about the platoon.

Military police caught wind of the final killing a few days later, but only by happenstance.  Records show they were coincidentally investigating reports of hashish use by members of the 3rd Platoon.

After word leaked that one soldier had spoken to military police, several platoon members retaliated, records show.  They confronted the informant and beat him severely -- punching, kicking, and choking the soldier, then dragging him across the ground.  As a last warning, the documents state, Gibbs menacingly waved finger bones he had collected from Afghan corpses.

However, the informant talked to the MPs again and told them what he had heard about the slayings, according to court documents.

Some members of his unit, he said in a statement, "when they are out at a village, wander off and kill someone and every time they say the same thing, about a guy throwing a grenade, but there is never proof."

This time, the Army acted quickly and made arrests.

--Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.


3.

ARMY SOLDIER SAYS STAFF SERGEANT PLOTTED AFGHANS' KILLINGS

By Craig Whitlock

Washington Post

September 27, 2010

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/09/18/ST2010091803942.html


A U.S. Army staff sergeant dreamed up a plan for fellow soldiers to kill three Afghan civilians this year because he was motivated by "pure hatred," another soldier accused in the slayings has told investigators.

In videotaped and written statements to Army investigators, Spec. Jeremy N. Morlock, 22, a member of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, admitted his involvement in the killings, which took place in Kandahar province between January and May.  Morlock sought to shift blame for the plot to his squad's staff sergeant, Calvin R. Gibbs, who he said planted the idea with their unit of killing innocent Afghans for sport.

"Gibbs had pure hatred for all Afghanis and constantly referred to them as savages," Morlock said in one statement, details of which were first reported by the Associated Press.

Morlock, Gibbs, and three other U.S. soldiers have been charged with murder in the deaths of the three Afghan civilians.  In some of the grisliest allegations against American military personnel since the 2001 invasion of Iraq, they and other soldiers from their platoon also face charges of using hashish, dismembering and photographing corpses, and possessing human bones.

Details of Morlock's statements emerged Monday during a pretrial hearing in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., home of the 5th Stryker Brigade.  The hearing was an initial step to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to a court martial against Morlock; the other defendants are scheduled to have similar hearings this fall.

Morlock's defense attorney has sought to toss out his client's statements, arguing that Morlock was under heavy medication when he talked to Army investigators in May.  His statements are considered key evidence against other defendants as well.

Anderson D. Wagner, a special agent with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, testified at the hearing that Morlock's statements were backed up by other members of his unit and that he did not appear unduly influenced by medication.

"He made good eye contact," Wagner said by telephone from Kandahar, according to the AP.  "He was able to recount events that happened several months ago."

Excerpts of Morlock's videotaped statement show the soldier rubbing his eyes and forehead, but speaking clearly as he told investigators how Gibbs allegedly organized the murders.

"He just really doesn't have any problems with [expletive] killing these people," Morlock said in an excerpt posted Monday by ABC News.  "And so we identify a guy.  Gibbs makes a comment, like, you know, 'You guys gonna wax this guy or what?'"

Gibbs's attorney has said that his client is innocent of wrongdoing and that the killings were justifiable because the soldiers were threatened or under attack.

Court papers allege that the soldiers picked their victims at random while on patrol and made it appear as if the unit acted in self-defense by planting grenades or ammunition.

Several other soldiers have also given statements to investigators, saying that hashish use was rampant in the unit and that some members kept Afghan finger and leg bones as trophies.

Digital photographs of the corpses -- and of soldiers posing with them -- circulated widely among the unit's soldiers, who stored the images on laptops and thumb drives, according to court papers.  Investigators have tried to collect all the images, but Army officials are worried they could become public and possibly inflame tensions among Afghans.

Although Army investigators were able to persuade many of the suspects to talk, they have had less luck recovering forensic evidence from the slayings.

Wagner testified that no autopsies have been conducted because Army officials didn't want to offend Afghans by seeking to exhume the victims' bodies.  Court papers show that investigators combed the crime scenes for clues after learning of the slayings in May, but came up empty.

4.

ARMY MONITORED STRYKER BRIGADE, HIT HARD IN AFGHANISTAN, FOR SIGNS OF STRESS

By Craig Whitlock

Washington Post

Sepember 18, 2010

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803936.html


AT JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, WASH. --
Army officials, concerned about the aftereffects of combat, were keeping a close eye on the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade long before soldiers from the unit were charged with atrocities committed in Afghanistan.

The 3,800-member brigade had trained for more than a year under the assumption that it would go to Iraq.  In February 2009, however, it received orders to go to Afghanistan instead.  With only a few months to prepare, the brigade -- named for the Army's eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles -- arrived in July 2009 and was thrust into the war's toughest fighting in southern Afghanistan.

It also paid a steep price:  35 of its soldiers were killed in combat, six others died from accidents and other causes in Afghanistan, and 239 were wounded during its year-long deployment.

Army officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the military installation in the shadow of Mount Rainier that served as home to the 5th Stryker Brigade, said they took unprecedented measures to prepare for the unit's return this summer.  They expanded health and reintegration programs designed to screen and monitor every soldier for potential brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, domestic discord, and behavioral problems.

Base officials said the return of the 5th Stryker Brigade was part of a larger influx of 18,000 troops coming back to Lewis-McChord from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Army senior leadership knew that this was the largest redeployment we've had out here in the northwest since the Korean War," said Army Col. Thomas Brittain, the joint base garrison commander.  "I think we were very well prepared for it."

But as in the case of the alleged atrocities, Army officials are facing accusations that they didn't do enough and ignored signs of trouble.

On Aug. 27, a soldier from the 5th Stryker Brigade who had gone AWOL shortly after his return from Afghanistan surfaced in Salt Lake City.  There, he marched into the Grand America -- a high-rise hotel and local landmark -- dressed in battle gear and carrying an AR-15 rifle, two handguns and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

The soldier, Spc. Brandon S. Barrett, 28, died in a shootout with Salt Lake City police.  One officer was shot in the leg, but no bystanders were hurt.  Police said they were fortunate to have averted a massacre.

Barrett had been reported AWOL by his unit on July 20.  On Aug. 19, the Army listed him as a deserter and issued a federal warrant for his arrest, said Maj. Kathleen Turner, an Army spokeswoman.

Barrett's family, however, said they knew exactly where he was during most of that period -- at home with them, in Tucson, where they assumed he was taking an authorized leave.  Relatives said the Army never contacted them until he was classified as a deserter.  Turner said platoon members tried to call on July 22 but "were unsuccessful."

Army officials acknowledged that Barrett was flagged by their screening process upon his return from Afghanistan.  They said he was referred for counseling after he was arrested for driving under the influence at Lewis-McChord on June 28 and also because he had told counselors that he was having "relationship concerns," Turner said.

But she added, "There was nothing that pinpointed him as being so at-risk."

Barrett's family said he came home to Tucson on July 27. His brother, Shane Barrett, a Tucson police officer, said nothing seemed amiss.

"They were probably some of the best times I ever spent with my brother," he said.

On Aug. 19, however, Shane Barrett said he received a call from a colleague at the Tucson Police Department who told him the Army was looking for his brother.  The Army told Tucson police that, in addition to being AWOL and facing drunk-driving charges, Brandon Barrett had been sending alarming text messages to members of his platoon, such as one that read, "You can't mess with soldiers returning from deployment," Shane Barrett said.

He said the Tucson police ran a database check but found no warrants for his brother or any record of the DUI.  As soon as Brandon Barrett learned the Army was looking for him, however, he took off.

He wasn't seen again until a week later, when he appeared in Salt Lake City.  Army officials said he had been in touch with his platoon and an Army chaplain after he left Tucson, reassuring them that he was on his way back to Lewis-McChord.

Around Aug. 25, however, he posted a Facebook message that indicated he was either "going to hurt himself or someone else," Turner said.  Military police issued a BOLO alert -- Be On the Lookout -- for Barrett in several states and noted that he was armed, she said.  But they couldn't find him until it was too late.

Barrett's family said that, as far as they knew, he had never visited Utah before and knew nobody there.  His mother has speculated that he was attracted by the name and prominence of the Grand America Hotel.

"She thinks my brother was trying to make a statement about how America treats its soldiers," Shane Barrett said.

--Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 December 2010 18:12  

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