Hearing begins for JBLM soldier accused of Afghanistan massacre
A military hearing is underway at JBLM for the U.S. soldier accused of slaughtering 16 people, including children, during a predawn raid on two villages in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a married father of two from Lake Tapps, is accused of slipping away from a remote outpost in southern Afghanistan early on March 11 and attacking the villages, leaving 16 dead — nine of them children, and 11 of them members of the same family. Six others were wounded, and some of the bodies set afire.
KIRO Radio’s Tim Haeck was in the courtroom and providing updates throughout the day in a running blog. The posts share testimony from 9 a.m. until the testimony concluded for the day at 4:30 p.m.
A hearing officer is describing the murders of named victims including the detail that victims were shot and some were burned. He is also accusing Bales of using drugs.
Bales is in uniform flanked by his defense team. Lead defense attorney John Henry Browne is on his way to Afghanistan for the proceedings.
The hearing officer points out that he is not Bales’ accuser, but to recommend disposition of the case. “I will impartially evaluate the evidence against you,” he said.
The hearing officer could recommend a general court martial or dismissal, and promises to consider just the evidence in the case.
The hearing officer reminded Bales he doesn’t have to make a statement and has the absolute right to remain silent. But after asking Bales a series of questions about his rights, he answers he understands: “Sir, yes sir.”
Five witnesses are scheduled to appear on the first day of the proceeding.
In an opening statement, the hearing officer said Staff Sgt. Bales left his home base, walked north in Kandahar province and began a killing spree over five hours in two villages, killing 16, wounding six. He said almost all were shot in the head.
The hearing officer said there was nothing out of the ordinary in the evening hours of March 10, until he was sent back to the airfield. “He was deliberate and methodical, lucid, coherent, responsive,” he said.
The hearing officer went on to say on tape, you’ll see solitary figure walking back to base, twice lying down as tracer rounds are fired. He said Bales covered in blood, is met at the gate and disarmed. Over next several hours, he made multiple admissions that will show with “chilling premeditation” that he killed 16 people.
One soldier will testify about drinking and that Bales seemed “normal.”
Another soldier, SFC Clayton Blackshear, will testify that Bales came to his room after bed time. Prior to March 10, he had never been in Blackshear’s room, that they had a seemingly innocuous conversation of 10 minutes; Bales tells him he admires special forces guys and that Bales doesn’t care if he gets killed, that he has an “ugly wife” and troubled home life.
Prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse said Bales goes back to his room and walks out the only (southern) gate, walking 600 meters and murders one man while his family flees next door. Bales follows and kills three more people, then Bales tries to kill six more people.
An Afghan Army soldier will testify Bales returned to the base after the first round of shooting.
More from the opening statement: Bales reportedly
leaves the base a second time and a guard tells him to stop, but he walks south, goes to a man’s home and kills him and his entire family, puts them in a pile and sets them on fire.
The prosecutor said “The massacre left no witness alive.” American investigators could not get to the crime scene for almost a month because of security concerns.
A woman’s DNA found on the floor and walls is the same blood found on Bales’ pistol and rifle, belt, boots, shirt, pants and underwear.
Bales reportedly made multiple admissions that not only did he commit the crimes, he “had a clear understanding of what he had done.” The prosecutor said he’ll justify his actions saying “I thought I was doing the right thing.”
The prosecutor said Bales offered a chillingly accurate account of the killings, saying “my count is 20.”
Bales reportedly tried to destroy a laptop computer and destroy evidence with bleach.
“The sheer brutality makes this case appropriate for capital referral (the death penalty),” he said.
The hearing is now in recess.
The hearing has resumed with the first witness, Msgt. Clifford Uhrich, a Special Forces soldier who testified he sat next to Bales on a number of missions and was not aware of any “problems with him.” But he testified he was injured and not present the night of the massacre.
The next witness, Cpl. David Godwin, is next to take the stand. He is testifying under immunity.
Godwin testified he had “maybe” two cocktails with Bales and another soldier while watching a movie for about 45 minutes. He said no one was drunk.
Godwin said there was nothing “strange” or “odd” about Bales before killing spree. He said the soldiers discussed an IED attack that had happened days before.
Godwin says Bales was missing when reports started coming in about the shootings. He says Bales had blood on his face and his uniform when he returned to base. He says he talked to Bales after the shootings “I thought I was doing the right thing” Bales added, “It’s bad. It’s bad. It’s real bad.”
Godwin says Bales was coherent, like he “got his hand caught in the cookie jar.” He says says Bales actually wanted help getting rid of the blood on his clothes with bleach, but Godwin declined.
In photos, Godwin identified bottles of steroids found in Bales’ room. He was asked why he asked Bales about the steroids. “I was offering to go get rid of them for him,” says Godwin. “I believe he understood that (he looked me in the eyes).”
Godwin says 100 or so civilians showed up outside the gate with bodies. They were shouting and angry. “We did not go outside the gate.”
Civilian defense attorney Emma Scanlon cross examines Cpl. David Godwin:
Q: In Iraq in 2009 and 2010, (Bales) cared about the welfare of his men and he talked about his kids a lot and how much he loved them?
A: “Yes, ma’am.”
Q: Bales did not have a problem with women? “No, ma’am.”
Q: His behavior became more intense and he was more easily agitated leading up to March 10th?
A: “Yes. Not violent, more loud.”
Q: He lost it with a truck driver?
A: “Yes, ma’am.”
Q: Unusual behavior?
Q: The night of the March 5th, there was drinking with you, Bales and two others?
Q: Two soldiers snorted a pill?”
Q: Bales, too?
Q: On March 10th, you drank from a quart-sized water bottle with whiskey?
A: “It was about one-third full. Nobody slurred their words, everybody was very coherent. When I woke up, I did not feel intoxicated. I awoke at 0203 and eventually went out to the gate. Bales was wearing a t-shirt and no kit. He had a cape tied around his neck. Outside the gate for 15 minutes or so.”
Q: You exchanged just a few sentences with Bales? You based your conclusion that he was coherent on that?
A: “I decided he was coherent based on what he said and that he followed our orders.”
Q: You were angry when information about the shootings started coming in?
Q: You said you didn’t know why he targeted certain places?
A: “There was no target of interest (in the civilian compounds) that I knew of.”
12:20 p.m. Recess for lunch.
1:39 p.m. Sgt. FC Clayton Blackshear is testifying about a late night visit to his room by Sgt. Bales in the hours before the massacre
1:40 p.m. Blackshear testified Bales told him about his problems at home; that he admired the special operations guys.
The next thing he remembers is being awakened to do a 100 percent personnel check and that Sgt. Bales was missing.
“We started shooting flares.”
Blackshear said when they found Bales, he was covered in blood with a look “absent of emotion,” “ghostly.”
“We escorted him back to base. Bales did not say anything significant that I can remember. (We) brought him into the Ops. Center and sat him down. He was asked to tell us what happened or start from the beginning. He started to say something and then chose not to. I saw Bales sign a document in which he acknowledges his rights. Captain had Bales shower and pack a bag and moved him to an aid station for observation. Bales mentioned some “sick stuff” that would come out of this and not to judge him. He said “sorry” a couple of times.
12:50 p.m. Blackshear said “I got in trouble for drinking and drugs. I was given Valium. I used it frequently to help with sleeping. I snorted it, maybe to have a quicker effect. I was emotionally distraught.”
2:02 p.m. Sgt. Jason McLaughlin testifies with immunity from prosecution: “I was infantry last March; I was one of Bales’ squad leaders.”
Bales came into my room at about 0200 and turned on the light and “I hate it when people wake me up with the light.”
He said he’d just shot a few people. I never got up. I said “no you didn’t” and he said “smell my weapon.” (It was next to my face). He said he was going out again. He was wearing a green t-shirt.
(Bales) said, “I’ll be back at 5.” He said, “Take care of my kids.” It was random. He repeated it. I told him I had guard at zero-three. After he left, I thought it was “completely ridiculous out of the realm of possibility. I didn’t think too much about it and went back to sleep.
Next thing, my alarm clock goes off (2:50); People told me they’d heard gunfire earlier. “I thought there’s no f-ing way.”
Afghan guards said one guy had come into the camp and one guy had left. Bales was not in his room. I found a field jacket liner in my room and I put it in Bales’ room. Captain Fields asked me if Bales was a sleepwalker. He told me to do a 100-percent (personnel check).
“A lot of stuff happened really quick,” said McLaughlin. “I ran to the gate and yelled Bales’ name to see if he was in earshot.” Then we got reports from a village of three dead and five wounded. “I was told to go to the gate to receive Sgt. Bales.” We saw a cape-like figure. “Bales starts jogging toward us.”
(Bales) was really submissive. He said, “Are you f-ing kidding me?” to no one in particular. He said to me, “You ratted me out” or “did you rat me out?” He took off his gear, his cape, his weapons, belt.
3:20 p.m. Testimony resumes after p.m. recess with Captain Daniel Fields.
Bales was on post when Fields arrived. He testified that Bales seemed “fairly alert and aware of what was going on. He didn’t want to look anyone in the eyes.”
Fields said he asked him what the “f” just happened? Bales said, “I’m sorry, I let you down.” He testified he was piecing together that the Afghan casualties might be linked to Bales.
Fields testified that he sent Bales back to his room to pack his bags and expected Bales to be flown off the base. He said Bales returned to the operations center and Fields read him his rights. There was no change in his demeanor.
3:50 p.m. Captain Daniel Fields…
An angry crowd gathered outside the gate of the military compound. Fields testified he felt they represented a “credible threat” to the base. We pulled all Americans back from the gate. He testified he was told there were bodies in Afghan vehicles but that he didn’t see them.
Cross examination: Fields testified that some of the gate cameras were operational. They were not monitored that night.
Fields testified that he talked to two Afghani guards at the gate who reported somebody coming and going. The guards told Fields that the person was an American, based on his English and his weapons.
Question: What info did you get?
Answer: Five casualties brought in, shot by an American.
Question: At night, there is nobody physically standing at the gate?
Answer: “Yes sir.”
Captain Fields is excused.
Testimony concludes for the day.
Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report