Page 5 of 5   <      

Four Hired Guns in an Armored Truck, Bullets Flying, and a Pickup and a Taxi Brought to a Halt. Who Did the Shooting and Why?

(Courtesy Isireli Naucukidi - Courtesy Isireli Naucukidi)

Washbourne denied making any threats and said no ambulance was parked near the checkpoint. Naucukidi also said he did not see an ambulance.

The convoy continued down the airport road, called Route Irish by the military and contractors, toward the Green Zone. It reached speeds of 80 miles per hour.

Schmidt, Sheppard and Naucukidi agree that the convoy then came upon a taxi.

According to the accounts of Schmidt and Sheppard, Washbourne remarked, "I've never shot anyone with my pistol before." As the Suburban passed on the left, Washbourne pushed open the armored door, leaned out with his handgun and fired "7 or 8 rounds" into the taxi's windshield, both wrote in their statements.

Schmidt wrote: "From my position as we passed I could see the taxi had been hit in the windshield, due to the Spidering of the glass and the pace we were travelling, I could not tell if the driver had been hit, He did pull the car off the road in an erratic manner."

Sheppard said Washbourne was "laughing" as he fired.

Washbourne called their accounts "an absolute, total fabrication." He said the Suburban's high rate of speed and the wind resistance would have made the shooting "physically impossible."

"There's not an ounce of truth in it. It did not happen," Washbourne said angrily. "And as far as the statement goes where I said, 'I've never shot anyone with my pistol,' that is a lie. It was never one time said."

Naucukidi said that Washbourne fired at the taxi with his M-4 and that he ordered Sheppard to cut off the taxi beforehand. Naucukidi said Sheppard followed the order and used the Suburban to slow down the taxi and give Washbourne a better position to shoot from.

"When we were slightly ahead, JW just opened his door and started shooting the taxi from where we were sitting," Naucukidi said in an interview.

Naucukidi described the taxi driver as a 60- to 70-year-old man. He said he saw one hole in the taxi's windshield but could not tell if the driver had been hit. He said the taxi abruptly stopped.

"From my point of view, this old man, he was so innocent, because he was ahead of us with a normal speed," Naucukidi said. "He couldn't have any danger for us."

Sheppard sped away to catch up to the rest of the convoy, according to Naucukidi, who added that the three Americans were laughing and that Schmidt reached over, tapped Washbourne on the shoulder and told him, "Nice shot."

"They felt that it was so funny," Naucukidi said.

Schmidt denied that he complimented Washbourne. "No, I don't get a thrill out of killing innocent people," he said. "That was a moment of shame."

Divergent Reports

When the convoy returned to the Green Zone, members of the team scattered.

Naucukidi said he immediately told his supervisor, Jona Masirewa, who served as a liaison between the Fijian contractors and the Americans, about the incidents. He said Masirewa instructed him to write up a report to use in case an investigation occurred.

Naucukidi wrote the one-page report on his laptop. It contained brief summaries of the two afternoon shootings.

Of the first incident, near the airport checkpoint, Naucukidi wrote that the white truck was approaching slowly and was 200 meters away when Schmidt opened fire: "Happy shot three (3) rounds from his M4 rifle, and the white bongo truck stopped."

In the second incident, Naucukidi wrote, the Suburban "over took one white taxi with an Iraqi single pack," or passenger. He wrote that "our team leader opened his door and fired three rounds at white taxi."

But Naucukidi said Masirewa feared losing his job and did not immediately turn over the report. "It was a difficult thing for us because we are TCNs," or third-country nationals, "and they are expats," Naucukidi said. "They are team leaders, and they make commands and reports on us. And the team leaders were always saying, 'What happens today, stays today,' and if something like that happens, the team leaders, they start covering each other up."

Masirewa, who is still employed by Triple Canopy in Iraq, did not return e-mails seeking comment.

By the time Washbourne went on vacation the following day, Schmidt and Sheppard had not reported the incidents. Schmidt said he was concerned about "catching a bullet in the head." Sheppard said he was so shaken he spent the night at another location inside the Green Zone.

But other employees did not believe that Schmidt and Sheppard feared for their safety. Rather, they said, the two men feared for their high-paying jobs and believed that Thomason, the assistant project manager, would throw his support behind Washbourne, his close friend.

On July 10, two days after the incidents on the airport run, Sheppard finally went to Asa Esslinger, another supervisor, and reported them to Triple Canopy management.

'Just a Rampant Day'

On July 12, back home in Oklahoma, Washbourne received a call on his cellphone from Triple Canopy's country manager, Kelvin Kai, he recalled later.

Washbourne said Kai asked him if he remembered any shooting incidents July 8. Washbourne said he told Kai that he had forgotten to file written reports. He said he rushed to his apartment from a Tulsa pizza restaurant and sent in the reports from his laptop.

Two hours later, Kai called again from Baghdad. "He said that allegations were made that it was just a rampant day, is I believe what he called it, of shooting and mayhem," Washbourne recalled. "I said, 'No, boss, you got those two reports.' "

Kai could not be reached for comment. Triple Canopy declined to make him available, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

The following day, Triple Canopy suspended Schmidt and Sheppard pending an internal investigation. No action was immediately taken against Washbourne because he was home on leave, according to the company.

"It is essential that we have your complete cooperation in reporting the facts and circumstances of all the activities not only to Triple Canopy but also to officials from DoD and KBR if necessary," wrote Tony Nicholson, a Triple Canopy vice president, in letters to Schmidt and Sheppard.

Triple Canopy said it took statements from 30 potential witnesses for its internal probe. One week later, the three guards were informed by Raymond P. Randall, a senior vice president of Triple Canopy, that they had been fired.

"I am personally disappointed that you failed to immediately recognize the seriousness of this breach of operating procedures and its potential impact on the company's reputation," Randall wrote.

The terminations did not preclude the possibility of future investigations by the military, Randall wrote.

Van Arsdale, a retired colonel in the Army's Delta Force and a winner of the Silver Star, said Triple Canopy reported the incidents to KBR and to military officials in the Green Zone.

Triple Canopy officials said that because of the seriousness of the allegations, they expected that the military would conduct a separate investigation to determine whether further action was warranted.

Lt. Col. Michael J. Hartig, the former director of security for the Green Zone, said Triple Canopy officials approached him in his office but did not specify the allegations. "They mentioned they had a couple guys do some things that were questionable on the road, and that was pretty much it," he said.

Hartig said he informed Triple Canopy that such incidents were "out of my venue." He said he referred the company to the Joint Contracting Command for Iraq and Afghanistan, which administers contracts. "I didn't want to get involved in this because I had enough going on in my life," Hartig said. "It was like, 'Here's the point of contact. Have a nice day.' "

Two military spokespeople said they were unaware of any investigations into the shootings. Maj. David W. Small, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, which oversees Iraq, said: "This is not a Centcom issue. It's whoever was running that contract."

"We're fighting a war here," Small said.

Staff writer Tom Jackman and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

<                5

© 2007 The Washington Post Company