The two Army women got out of bed and walked through the humid fall night into the woods behind their barracks, stopping at a 68-foot-long rope with a hangman's noose that dangled from a gnarled oak tree.
There, investigators say, one of the women tied the hands of the other, her 19-year-old homosexual lover, with a black webbed military belt and slipped the thick noose around her neck.
"'Please leave, I love you,'" Pfc. Tammy Meza-Luna allegedly told her friend, Spec. 5 Nancy Jean Varraso.
"I can't believe you're going to do this and I love you too, lady," the 23-year-old Varraso told investigators she answered. She then kissed her friend's forehead and returned to the barracks.
Minutes later Meza-Luna leaned forward against the noose and stranged. Her feet never left the ground.
A seven-member military jury here at Fort Eustis, a sprawling post 180 miles southeast of Washington, today found Varraso's actions amounted to second-degree murder and set her sentencing for tomorrow.
Meza-Luma's body was discovered 15 hours after her death on Sept. 29, in an isolated section of Fort Story in Virginia Beach, where both women served as amphibious engineers.
Army prosecutors had argued that Varraso, the first women to face court-martial on a murder charge since the Korean War, had killed Meza-Luna by leaving her in a position from which she could not extricate herself. "It was like passing her a hand grenade while she sat with her hands tied behind her back, pulling the pin and just walking away," prosecutor Capt. Keith Hodges said in his closing argument today.
But the issue of Varraso's guilt had been overshadowed during her five-day trial by extensive and graphic testimony about a lesbian triangle in an Army unit that the prosecutor today called "a rather strange unit." The case has attracted intense interest here in Virginia's Tidewater region, which has one of the nation's largest concentrations of active duty and retired military personnel.
Varraso's trial came as the Army, the largest of the military services, is attempting to assimilate a dramatic increase in the number of women soldiers in what used to be called "This man's Army."
Because the defendant, the victim and several key prosecution witnesses have said they are homosexual, the trial also focused attention on homosexuals in the military. Some studies have indicated that they make up 10 percent of the military, although all services currently bar avowed homosexuals.
Varraso, who had pleaded innocent and now faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, appeared grimly impassive during closing arguments, her hands folded in her lap and her Good Conduct Medal pinned to her green uniform. Her father, a firefighter in Quincy, Mass., and her mother, a schoolteacher, have attended the entire trial and sat today in the front row looking sad and speaking to no one.
Prosecutor Hodges, in a loud voice that ricocheted off the walls of the small wood-paneled courtroom, told the jury that Varraso was a "violent and possessive person" who eagerly helped Meza-Luna commit suicide because the two women were fighting over the affections of another woman soldier, Becky Smith, 21.
Smith testified that she was trying to end a year-long relationship with Varraso, who she said had once beaten her because she thought she was pregnant and had threatened to kill her if she got involved with another woman or a man. Last summer Smith and Varraso had told Army officials they were lovers and wanted to leave the Army. Discharge proceedings were pending against them at the time of Meza-Luna's death.
Another prosecution witness testified that three months before Meza-Luna's death, she overheard Varraso and Meza-Luna arguing over Smith. That witness also testified that the night before Meza-Luna's death, she walked into a barracks room and found Meza-Luna and Smith naked and in bed together.
Several witnesses, including the dead woman's husband, Manuel Meza-Luna, testified that Tammy Meza-Luna had attempted suicide several times and repeatedly talked about killing herself.
Meza-Luna, who discovered his wife's body, testified that he knew she was homosexual when they married last year but did so in order to qualify for off-base housing pay.
One of the most bizarre incidents in the case occurred several hours before Meza-Luna's death. A sergeant testified that Varraso called a supply room at Fort Story to announce that she and Meza-Luna planned to commit suicide in the woods.
When a sergeant investigated, he found that the two women had hoisted a rope into a tree. Varraso reportedly told the sergeant that they were making a swing and the sergeant ordered them back to the barracks.
"The whole 309th [Transportation Detachment to which the women were assigned ] is like something out of Walt Disney," said prosecutor Hodges. He said that Varraso was guilty because she "set in motion an unbreakable chain of events. . . . Whether Tammy Meza-Luna wanted to die is irrelevant."
Varraso presented no defense evidence but her attorney, Martin S. Cosgrove, contended that his client believed Meza-Luna would not kill herself. Cosgrove, one of the best-known criminal lawyers in Massachusetts, had concentrated his efforts on suppressing a confession Varraso gave to military investigators, saying that she had been tricked and coerced into making the statement.
"Tammy was the moving party behind the suicide," said Cosgrove, whose rapid-fire Boston-accented speech and rumpled suit contrasted with the spit and polish look of military attorneys.
Cosgrove, nicknamed the "Columbo of Defense Attorneys" by newspapers here, cited the "rampant and overt homosexuality, and abuse of drugs and alcohol" about which he said Army officials "did nothing."
Tammy Meza-Luna, Cosgrove said, was "totally suicidal" and was "calling out for help and nobody listened to her."
Cosgrove said that on the night Meza-Luna died, the two women were lying in Varraso's bed when Meza-Luna pleaded with Varraso, "Please help me do it, put me out of my misery."
"She kept pleading with me to help and I agreed to help her," said Cosgrove, reading from Varraso's statement to the police. "I felt if I went out [in the woods] with her she would not do it. She'd tried [to comit suicide] so many times before I just did not believe her. . . . I left her enough room [in the noose] so she could have gotten out of it."