Army alleges that sergeant led 'kill team' targeting Afghan civilians
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 10:33 PM
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WASH. - A soldier charged with leading a conspiracy to randomly target and kill unarmed Afghan civilians made his first appearance in a military courtroom Tuesday and listened to prosecutors present details of perhaps the most serious war-crimes case to emerge from the Afghan conflict.
Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont., is accused of leading a "kill team" of soldiers that murdered three unarmed Afghan men, hoarded body parts and photographed one another posing with their victims between January and May. Although the Army has not revealed a motive, other soldiers charged in the case have said they acted simply because they thought they could get away with it - and did so for months without attracting scrutiny.
Four other soldiers from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, also face murder charges. Most of the defendants have described Gibbs as the ringleader, portraying him as a methodical killer who planned the attacks, planted evidence to cover them up, carved fingers off corpses and intimidated other members of the unit to keep silent.
In a pretrial hearing Tuesday at this base near Tacoma, Wash., the military laid out its charges against Gibbs. They include three counts of murder, conspiracy, dereliction of duty, assault with a dangerous weapon and attempting to impede an investigation. The Article 32 hearing is the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing; a military judge will determine in the coming weeks if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a court-martial.
Capt. Andre Leblanc, the lead prosecutor, called Gibbs a charismatic leader who persuaded other soldiers to join his "kill team" soon after he was assigned to the platoon in November 2009.
"That's when things start going south, that's when people start getting killed, that's when he forms his team," Leblanc said. "He wraps these soldiers up in acts of unspeakable cruelty and indifference."
Gibbs, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, sat largely expressionless in the courtroom, flanked by his two lawyers. He declined to address the court but, when asked by the judge, Col. Thomas P. Molloy, he said that he understood the charges against him and was satisfied with his legal defense.
Gibbs's civilian lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, has said that the killings were combat-related and were therefore justified.
On Tuesday, he raised doubts about the thoroughness of the Army's investigation. Stackhouse noted that the charges against his client are based almost entirely on confessions by two other soldiers accused of murder, Spec. Jeremy Morlock and Spec. Adam Winfield.
Stackhouse also questioned why Army criminal investigators did not interview potential Afghan eyewitnesses to the third alleged murder, which took place May 2 in the village of Qualaday, in Kandahar province.
Some villagers had complained to Army commanders that the killing was staged. But Special Agent Anderson D. Wagner, of the Army's Criminal Investigations Command, testified that investigators are waiting for permission from Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to revisit the village and conduct interviews.
Wagner said that special permission was necessary because of the sensitivity of the alleged crimes. "If you go and interview Afghan civilians, basically saying U.S. soldiers had wrongfully killed your family member, when there's a battalion element still out there, it puts them at risk," he said.