Troops' Murder Cases in Iraq Detailed

By Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

December 7, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. military prosecutors alleged Monday that American soldiers shot to death two unarmed Iraqi men in their homes, then tried to cover up their crimes by claiming that the Iraqis had reached for guns.

In a makeshift courtroom here, the prosecutors and other soldiers described in chilling detail how the two accused servicemen casually executed the Iraqis in August even though the civilians posed no immediate danger.

Sgt. Michael P. Williams, 25, of Memphis, Tenn., and Spc. Brent W. May, 22, of Salem, Ohio, are the second pair of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment of Ft. Riley, Kan., to face murder charges stemming from separate incidents in August.

Williams and May, who are held in what authorities described as military confinement here, could face the death penalty if convicted.

The allegations against them are among about a dozen murder cases that have been filed against U.S. troops in Iraq. Details of their actions were revealed after last month's videotaped killing of a wounded insurgent by a U.S. Marine in Fallouja.

That case, which is under review, and others have led human rights groups and many Iraqis to question the conduct of American forces.

Two soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry, have testified that rogue members of the unit showed so little regard for the lives of Iraqis that they felt obligated to complain to superiors about criminal conduct that included murder, mistreatment of a corpse and firing at a truck whose occupants were waving a white flag.

Some soldiers in the unit bragged about their misdeeds, the witnesses said.

One of the Army whistle-blowers had to be transferred to another unit for his safety.

"It was a real moral dilemma," said Pfc. Gary Romriell, who testified that he switched units after complaining about his fellow soldiers' conduct.

"On the one hand, my friends and associates were involved in the crimes. On the other hand, it was wrong."

Williams and May were charged in September, but details of the killings were made public for the first time Monday at a preliminary court-martial hearing for May.

Monday's hearing focused on the killing of an unidentified Iraqi on the morning of Aug. 28 as the regiment's Charlie Company conducted house-to-house searches in Sadr City. At the time, the Baghdad slum was the site of daily skirmishes between U.S. troops and black-clad members of the Mahdi militia, who follow radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Soldiers approached a small, one-story home and found a family sleeping on blankets in the courtyard because of the summer heat, several soldiers from the unit testified Monday.

Soldiers detained the family — a father, mother, daughter, son and baby — in the courtyard while they searched the home.

Soldiers found a revolver and an AK-47 rifle. Because of the lack of security in Iraq, it is not uncommon for Iraqi families to keep guns in their homes. The law permits each household to have one weapon for protection.

At least one soldier testified that he suspected that the occupants had used the weapons to attack U.S. troops.

After the weapons were found, Williams, who was the squad leader, and May motioned for the father to follow them inside, soldiers testified.

Once inside, Williams and May stood in front of the Iraqi.

"You know what you have to do," Williams told May, according to military attorneys' account of the incident.

"Can I shoot him?" May asked Williams. "Shoot him," Williams replied, according to military attorneys.

May fired two shots.

"I shot him in the head twice, took a picture of him, and walked outside," May told a military investigator, Special Agent James Suprynowicz, in a sworn statement several weeks later. It was read in court Monday.

After the shooting, May bragged about the incident to fellow soldiers, prosecutors alleged.

"Spc. May was pretty hyped up," testified Spc. Joshua R. Sickels, a member of the battalion. "He was excited. He said he'd never shot someone that close up before."

When his commanding officer asked him what had happened, May replied that the Iraqi tried to grab a gun. In the sworn statement later, May admitted that he fired two shots at the unarmed man, according to Suprynowicz.

May told investigators that he shot the man "because I was ordered to," Suprynowicz testified.

After soldiers dragged the bleeding man from the house, his wife became hysterical, wailing, throwing dirt in the air and beating herself with her hands. Soldiers watched in shock as she laid her baby on top of the dying man.

"We were all taken aback by that," said Lt. Col. David Batchelor, task force commander of the 1-41st, who arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting. "I'll never forget that."

Batchelor ordered his medic to treat the man's head wound and considered calling for a medical evacuation, but he said he doubted that the man could be saved.

At the time, he said he suspected the Iraqi was a militia fighter because May had told him that the man was shot after reaching for a gun.

Batchelor said he decided to order soldiers to leave the scene because he was "pressed for time," and the unit needed to get to its next mission. As they left, soldiers saw a motorcycle drive up. Some Iraqis from the area put the wounded man in the motorcycle's sidecar and drove away.

Military investigators visited the house about a month later, but the family had moved away, leaving behind blood-spattered rugs and furniture. Military investigators say they have been unable to identify the victim or his family.

Soldiers who took part in the raid said they immediately suspected that their two colleagues had murdered the man.

When May and Williams took the Iraqi back into the house, "we figured something fishy was going on," testified Spc. Tulafono Young, a team leader in Charlie Company. "Sgt. Williams wanted to kill the guy."

Under cross-examination, Young admitted that he is under investigation in a separate incident for shooting at passengers in a truck waving a white flag and that he initially lied to investigators in that probe.

The other Aug. 28 killing occurred less than 30 minutes earlier, soldiers testified, after troops discovered an AK-47 rifle while searching another house down the street.

When the rifle was found, Williams ordered that the Iraqi man who lived there, who had been handcuffed and was being kept on his knees in front of the house, be brought inside, according to military attorney Capt. Daniel Estaville, who summarized the statements of witnesses.

Williams cut off the man's plastic handcuffs, laid the rifle near the Iraqi and said aloud to other soldiers in the room, "I feel my life has been threatened."

Williams then shot the man twice, Estaville said. The victim has not been identified.

Keith Higgins, a civilian attorney from Massachusetts who is representing May, declined to comment on his client's guilt or innocence.

May was not implicated in the earlier killing. Higgins said that at the time of the shooting, May was struggling to cope with stressful combat conditions in Sadr City. He added that evidence would show that May was ordered to kill the Iraqi by Williams, his superior officer.

Attorneys for Williams could not be reached for comment. Williams' preliminary hearing is expected to take place this week.

Higgins said that the alarming number of allegations of murder and other misconduct against soldiers in the 1-41st suggested a systemic problem.

He noted that two additional soldiers from the unit were facing murder charges in the U.S. for killing two of their colleagues.

"One instance might point to the individual," Higgins said. "But when you see multiple separate instances, you have to start looking for the common denominator. You've got to look to the command."

Military officers with the 1-41st have declined to comment on the murder cases.

In September, military prosecutors filed murder charges against two other soldiers in the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry, after an Aug. 18 incident in which they attacked teenage trash collectors, killing seven people and wounding eight.

The soldiers said they believed the youths' dump truck was filled with insurgents who were planting roadside bombs.

Charges of premeditated murder were filed after the soldiers admitted that they shot a wounded Iraqi lying on the road after the initial attack because they believed he was suffering and going to die anyway.

Officials said they investigated that shooting after a soldier slipped an anonymous note under the door of the unit's commander alleging that "soldiers had committed serious crimes that needed to be looked at."

In September, prosecutors in Kansas charged Sgts. Eric J. Colvin, 23, of Papillion, Neb., and Aaron R. Stanley, 22, of Bismarck, N.D., with the shooting deaths of Staff Sgt. Matthew H. Werner, 30, of Oxnard, and Spc. Christopher D. Hymer, 23, of Nevada, Mo., at a home 30 miles from Ft. Riley.