Marine Charged With Murder in Iraqis' Deaths

By MICHELLE O'DONNELL

New York Times

February 11, 2005

A Marine lieutenant from New York City who shot and killed two Iraqis last spring during a vehicle search south of Baghdad has been charged with premeditated murder, a crime that carries the death penalty, his lawyer said yesterday.

The marine, Second Lt. Ilario G. Pantano of the Second Marine Division, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., was notified of the charges on Feb. 1, his civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins of Middletown, Va., said. The case became public yesterday when the Marine Corps released a statement about the charges.

Marine officials could not be reached for comment last night. A Marine spokesman, Maj. Matt Morgan, told The Associated Press that the exact charges would be released later.

Lieutenant Pantano, 33, was born and raised in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, his mother, Merry Pantano, said. A graduate of the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and New York University, he first enlisted in the Marines when he was 17.

He is a former energy trader for Goldman Sachs in New York, said Ms. Pantano, a literary agent in Manhattan who said her son also worked in television and film production before rejoining the Marines after Sept. 11, 2001.

Ms. Pantano said that her son had become aware some months after the shootings that an investigation had been opened but that he continued to serve in combat.

"I find it incomprehensible," Ms. Pantano said last night from her home in Tudor City. "I mean, he was in Iraq fighting a war. And war - we all know what war is like."

On April 15, 2004, Lieutenant Pantano was in a town south of Baghdad when, Mr. Gittins said, his platoon stopped two Iraqi insurgents driving in an S.U.V. who had just come from an arms cache. While the marines secured a perimeter, Lieutenant Pantano ordered the two Iraqis to begin stripping the S.U.V.'s interior to expose any possible booby traps hidden beneath false bottoms or beneath the paneling.

The Iraqi men stopped stripping the vehicle, Mr. Gittins said, and turned toward Lieutenant Pantano and began advancing toward him. He said his client had told them to stop in Arabic, but they did not.

"They put my client in fear of his own life and he killed them," Mr. Gittins said.

Mr. Gittins said Lieutenant Pantano, who has been staying with his wife and two young sons at his home near Camp Lejeune, will enter his plea at a hearing in a few weeks.

No booby traps were found in the vehicle, he said. And, he said, as far as Lieutenant Pantano could see, the men were unarmed.

Ms. Pantano described her son as a young man with a lifelong fascination with the military. As a boy, he was entranced by the aircraft carrier Intrepid, which was docked just blocks away from his parents' apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. He began volunteering at the museum there at age 13.

An avid reader, he read mostly military books, she said, among them books about Vietnam and encyclopedic manuals about tanks.

When he began serving in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, soon after his graduation from the Horace Mann School, an elite private school that he attended on partial scholarship, he was assigned to a team that shot missiles at Iraqi tanks, she said.

When he returned from the war with the rank of sergeant, he enrolled at New York University. After losing friends in the Sept. 11 attacks, he decided to return to the Marines, and enrolled in officer's candidate school. He was sent to Iraq in March 2004.

Ms. Pantano has established a group to support her son and a Web site: www.defendthedefenders.org. She said the group would offer support to any soldier facing charges over actions in combat.

"You want justice, everybody wants justice," she said. "But things happen in a combat situation. I know he won't be the last to experience this problem."