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A Drunken Night in Iraq, A Soldier Is Left Behind

Pfc. Hannah G. McKinney, 20, was killed Sept. 4, 2006, when she fell out of a Humvee.
Pfc. Hannah G. McKinney, 20, was killed Sept. 4, 2006, when she fell out of a Humvee. (Family Photo)
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Prosecutors said that the required degree of negligence was clear in "the totality" of Shell's actions -- driving drunk in a war zone with an underage, incapacitated junior soldier to whom he had supplied alcohol and whose vehicle door he was the last to operate.

"He failed in every single duty he owed to Pfc. Gunterman that day, and she's dead," said Maj. Scott Flesch, referring to Hannah by her unmarried name.

But defense attorneys framed the case as an accident that Shell could not have prevented. They brought in an accident reconstruction expert who said that Shell had not sped or swerved, as a prosecution witness had testified, and that the Humvee's faulty door was prone to pop open.

"It wouldn't matter if the best NASCAR driver was at the wheel of that vehicle," attorney Neal Puckett said. "If a passenger falls out of the vehicle, what happens to the passenger after they leave the vehicle is not a function of anything the driver does."

Puckett said it was "a horrible, a horrible accident. But that's all it is . . . an accident."

The Heavrins were outraged. To them, it was a hit-and-run in a war zone, where the military ethic says no one gets left behind. "Nobody should die like that," Barbie Heavrin said. "He was done with her sexually. He just left her all alone, dying in the dirt."

The court-martial that started at 9 a.m. on a Monday ended the next day at 1:03 p.m., when the judge announced: "Not guilty."

The Heavrins left in shock.

Barbie Heavrin had taken along a scrapbook she had created of McKinney's life, with a lock of hair, her childhood artwork and photos of her twirling a baton, playing soccer, practicing piano. There were images of a ski trip, a prom, her husband and baby.

She had wanted the judge to know all that was lost.

But Shell was sentenced on only the three lesser charges to which he had pleaded guilty. The scrapbook had no place in the proceeding.

Shell's attorneys called on several Army officers who praised Shell's courage in confronting enemy forces and roadside bombs in Iraq, where he had earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. One officer compared him to World War II hero Audie Murphy.

Just after 3:30 p.m., the judge ruled: Shell would be locked up for 13 months and demoted to private. He would not be discharged from the Army.

By then, Barbie Heavrin and her family had gone home.

'What Do You Say? Sorry?'

Eight months after the court-martial, Shell is still in confinement at Fort Sill, Okla. Prisoners cannot speak to the media, officials said. Puckett, Shell's attorney, said that with the case over he is no longer representing Shell.

With McKinney gone, Barbie and Matt Heavrin raise their grandson, now 3. McKinney's death benefit, $500,000, went to her husband. Under military rules, nothing was required to be put aside for Todd, who was born from an earlier relationship. Christopher McKinney did not return phone calls.

Even now, Barbie Heavrin finds herself imagining the chance to stand in court and show Shell the Army beret that her daughter wore. She imagines what she would say: "Here's the No. 1 reason you should have stopped for her. You're a fellow soldier."

A few weeks ago, the Heavrins received a box of Army documents they had requested. For three days, McKinney's mother pored over the pages. She lingered when she got to Shell's final interview with investigators. He had said nothing to the family in court, she said.

Barbie read his answers closely.

Q: Looking back on it now, do you think you should have stopped and rendered aid to Pfc. Gunterman?

A: Yes.

Q: If you had a chance to speak to Pfc. Gunterman's family, what would you say?

A: Nothing I could say or do would make up for the fact that the things that happened that night killed her. What do you say? Sorry? That means nothing. There is nothing I can say. It would take me a long time to figure out what to say.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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