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Inquiry finds GIs plotted to slay civilians for sport

Five are accused in random deaths of three Afghans

Those charged with murder include (from left), Corporal Jeremy Morlock, Specialist Michael Wagnon, Private First Class Andrew Holmes, and Private First Class Adam Winfield. Those charged with murder include (from left), Corporal Jeremy Morlock, Specialist Michael Wagnon, Private First Class Andrew Holmes, and Private First Class Adam Winfield. (Army Photos)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / September 26, 2010

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The US soldiers floated 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, hatched 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 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 US invasion began 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 the 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 declined to comment on the case.

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.

The Army has scheduled pretrial hearings in the case this fall. Military officials say privately that they worry the hearings will draw further attention to the case, prompting anger among the Afghan civilians whose support is critical to the fight against the Taliban.

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 receiving a new member, Staff Sergeant Calvin 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.

The first opportunity presented itself Jan. 15. 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, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, threw the grenade on the ground, records show, to create the illusion that the soldiers were under attack.

Private First Class Andrew 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.

Morlock, Holmes, and Gibbs have each been charged with murder in the shooting. Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney for Holmes, said his client was in the dark about the ruse and was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.’’ Attorneys for Morlock and Gibbs did not return phone calls.

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 charged Gibbs, Morlock, and Specialist Michael Wagnon of Las Vegas with that murder.

Members of the 3rd Platoon found their next victim May 2, documents show. Gibbs, Morlock and Private First Class Adam Winfield are accused of tossing a grenade and fatally shooting an Afghan cleric.

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