By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; A1
Three days after they killed an Afghan cleric named Mullah Adahdad, members of a U.S. Army platoon returned to his village. Tribal elders had complained to Army officers that the cleric had been unarmed and that the May 2 shooting was a setup. The soldiers tried to convince them otherwise.
"This guy was shot because he took an aggressive action against coalition forces," 1st Lt. Stefan Moye, the platoon leader, explained to village residents in Qualaday, in Kandahar province. "We didn't just [expletive] come over here and just shoot him randomly. And we don't do that."
In fact, Army charging documents now allege, that's exactly what soldiers in the platoon did - in perhaps the gravest war crime charges to emerge from the nine-year Afghan conflict. According to the documents, the cleric's death culminated a months-long conspiracy in which members of a unit of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division randomly targeted and killed three unarmed Afghan men, dismembered corpses and posed for grisly photographs with their victims.
The attempts to defend the May 2 shooting are detailed in previously undisclosed audio recordings made by a photojournalist embedded with the unit. The recordings, obtained by The Washington Post, demonstrate the extent to which the platoon was concerned about how the killing was perceived among Afghans.
But the recordings also raise questions about why Army commanders did not take those suspicions seriously and failed to notice broader signs of trouble in the platoon until a member of the unit, under investigation for hashish use, tipped off military police.
Moye - who has not been charged in connection with the shooting - insisted to villagers in blunt language that members of his platoon had killed the cleric only after he attacked them with a Russian grenade, a version that Army investigators now allege was concocted by other soldiers to cover up the crime.
"Not only is it important that you understand that, but that you tell everybody," Moye said, according to the audio recordings. "Because this is the type of stuff the Taliban likes to use against us and [expletive] try to recruit people to fight against us."
Documents from the Army's Criminal Investigations Command show that military investigators later learned that the photojournalist, Max Becherer, had been with the Stryker platoon on May 5 and had recorded soldiers' conversations. Army special agents conducting the killing investigation realized Becherer might possess key evidence: recordings of platoon members at the scene of one of the alleged crimes.
But the documents also show that a higher-ranking officer in the Criminal Investigations Command, Lt. Col. Robert McNeil, ordered special agents not to contact Becherer. The reason: concerns that notifying the journalist might disrupt the serial killing probe, which the Army had sought to keep tightly under wraps.
McNeil decided on June 12 that "the probative value of any information" that Becherer might have "does not out way [sic] the possible negative impact contacting him may have on this investigation," according to summary logs of the Army's criminal investigation.
After seeing Becherer's name in the documents, The Washington Post independently contacted him and obtained his audio recordings. The photojournalist, currently embedded with another Army unit in Afghanistan, said the Army never contacted him and that he had been unaware his materials were considered potential evidence in the case.
Christopher P. Grey, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigations Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., said special agents did not contact Becherer because he was only embedded with the unit after the May 2 killing.
"The decision to contact personnel (reporters or otherwise) on the off chance that he or she may have some information bearing on an open criminal investigation is a decision that investigators face every day," Grey said in an e-mail. "They must weigh the risk of potentially compromising an ongoing investigation with obtaining evidence necessary to establish that a crime took place."
The Army has built its criminal case almost exclusively on videotaped confessions and other statements obtained from members of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, including two of the soldiers charged with killing the cleric.
As the cases make their way through the military justice system, defense lawyers are seeking to toss out their clients' confessions. The attorney for Spec. Jeremy N. Morlock, one of three soldiers accused of killing the cleric, has said his client was under the influence of heavy medication when he was interrogated.
"Once they got the statements out of the witnesses, they stopped doing any real investigative work," said the lawyer, Michael Waddington. "It's clear they wanted it to be a quick, clean conviction with a couple of confessions."'Kill this guy. Kill this guy.'
On the morning of May 2, as the temperatures soared above 100 degrees, members of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment conducted a foot patrol through the village of Qualaday.
The platoon stopped at a mud-walled compound, near where soldiers had days earlier found an unexploded homemade bomb. As Moye questioned villagers inside the compound, other soldiers kept watch outside.
Mullah Adahdad was standing by an adjacent compound. He caught the attention of the platoon's staff sergeant, Calvin R. Gibbs, who pointed the cleric out to fellow members of what he described as his "kill team," according to a videotaped statement given to Army investigators by another soldier in the unit, Spec. Adam C. Winfield.
Winfield said the Afghan was unarmed and "seemed friendly. He didn't seem to have any sort of animosity towards us."
Gibbs, however, told Winfield and Morlock to walk the cleric into a nearby ditch and put him on his knees, according to statements Winfield and Morlock gave to Army investigators.
"Sgt. Gibbs said, 'This is how it's going to go down. You're going to shoot your weapons, yell grenade. And then I'm going to throw this grenade. And after it goes off, I'm going to drop this grenade next to him,' " Winfield stated.
"Well, we're laying there. Morlock told me to shoot. I started shooting, yelled grenade. Grenade blew up. And that was that."
In a separate videotaped statement, Morlock said Gibbs pulled out a grenade, threw it, then told Morlock and Winfield: "All right dude, you know, wax this guy. Kill this guy. Kill this guy."
After Morlock and Winfield fired their weapons, and after the grenades exploded, Gibbs walked up to the prostrate body of the cleric, who was lying in the ditch with half his leg blown off, and shot him "probably about two more times in the head," according to Winfield's statement.
Hearing the shots and explosions, other members of the platoons rushed to the scene. They saw the dead cleric and an unexploded Russian-made grenade lying next to him.
Winfield later told investigators that Gibbs had illicitly acquired the pineapple-shaped grenades so that his "kill team" could stage attacks, and planted them on the cleric's corpse as part of a coverup.
Soldiers who arrived on the scene shortly afterward said they found the explanation believable.
"I assume [the grenades] came from the Taliban, because I don't know why a mullah would just be carrying around a [expletive] Russian hand grenade," Moye, the platoon leader, told villagers a few days later, according to an audio recording of the conversation.
In a brief telephone interview, Moye confirmed that his conversations with the villagers had been recorded. He declined to comment further, except to say he stood by statements and testimony he has given in the case.
Winfield has been charged with murder in the incident. His lawyer has said that his client felt threatened and pressured by Gibbs, and that Winfield's father had tried to alert the Army to wrongdoing by the platoon three months before the cleric was killed.
Gibbs's civilian attorney said his client was not guilty of any crimes but declined to comment on specific allegations. "It's fair to say that any incident Staff Sgt. Gibbs was involved in was a legitimate combat engagement," said the lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse.Grisly aftermath
Death did not mark the end of the violence inflicted on Mullah Adahdad, according to Army investigative documents.
Gibbs led a team of three soldiers assigned to collect the cleric's body and record his fingerprints. As the team finished its work, Gibbs took out a pair of medical scissors and cut off the left pinky finger from the corpse, according to a statement given to investigators by Cpl. Emmitt Quintal, a platoon member who said he witnessed the episode.
"CPL Quintal responded by telling SSG Gibbs that he was a savage and SSG Gibbs got really mad," according to a summary. "Furthermore, CPL Quintal saw SSG Gibbs remove a tooth from the individual with his hands while wearing surgical gloves."
In addition to three counts of murder, Gibbs has been charged with possessing finger bones, leg bones and a tooth from Afghan corpses.
Three days after the cleric's death, as the platoon returned to the village, Becherer, the embedded photojournalist, noticed that Gibbs was carrying a pair of medical shears, the kind that medics use to cut the clothes off the wounded. The scissors were tucked inside the neck opening of his body armor, where they could be accessed quickly.
Becherer said he asked Gibbs whether he was a medic. "He told me, no, he was a squad leader," explaining that he kept the scissors close at hand "just to be ready."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.