In 2012, a Marine Corps staff sergeant was court-martialed for being among a group of snipers who urinated on the fresh corpses of Taliban fighters. In 2016, police in Tennessee say he saved a 3-year-old from being fatherless.
What may seem like a redemption plot from a Hollywood drama is the story of Joseph Chamblin, the former Marine who worked with Tennessee police to foil an alleged attempted murder.
The story is complicated. It involves a young woman trying to get custody of her son, her alleged search for a hit man and a staged death.
Chamblin’s career had been going well in 2011, the Military Times reported. He was chosen by the leaders of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, to be the scout sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan. The next January, it seemed likely that he would be promoted to gunnery sergeant. Then a video surfaced. In it, he and three other scout snipers are standing over the corpses of Taliban fighters, and they’re urinating on them.
The footage sparked outrage around the world. The Atlantic suggested that “the Afghan video is of particular concern because it has the possibility of becoming one of the dominant images of the war.”
“This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms,” former Afghan president Hamid Karzai told the New York Times.
In an interview with WSOC-TV, Chamblin said he did it as a means of psychological warfare, implying that they defiled the corpses so that the fighters wouldn’t reap any rewards of the afterlife.
“Because of their cultural belief that if an infidel touches the bodies, they’re not going to Mecca or going to paradise,” Chamblin said. “So now these insurgents see what happens when they mess with us.”
When asked whether he would do it again, he didn’t pause.
“Yep,” he said.
The Marine Corps said Chamblin pleaded guilty to wrongful desecration, failure to properly supervise junior Marines and posing for photos with battlefield casualties. Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who oversaw the Chamblin case, agreed before the court-martial to limit his punishment to the loss of $500 in pay and reduction in rank by one grade.
Seven other Marines faced similar ramifications. According to the blog of Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS and CNN correspondent and author of the best-selling “Stonewalled,” former staff Sgt. Edward Deptola pleaded guilty to taking photos of the desecration and was reduced in rank. Former Sgt. Derek Mages pleaded guilty to urinating on human remains and received a less-than-honorable discharge. Capt. James Clement, who was manning the radio and was not present for the video recording, received an honorable discharge. Former Cpl. Matthew Bostrom was reduced in rank. Former Sgt. Jacob Pope pleaded guilty to urinating on human remains and received a letter of reprimand. Several days after the video was recorded, he lost his leg, which allowed him to medically retire.
One, former Sgt. Robert Richards, pleaded guilty and was demoted to corporal before being granted a medical retirement with an honorable discharge. In 2014, he was found dead in his house in Jacksonville, N.C. He was 28. The cause of death was an accidental overdose on Opana, which caused oxymorphone toxicity, the Marine Corps Times reported.
After being court-martialed, Chamblin left the Marines and co-wrote a book titled “Into Infamy: A Marine Sniper’s War” with fellow former Marine Milo Afong about both his experience in the war and with the video.
After the media firestorms over the video and his book, meeting Laura Buckingham must have felt like a fresh start. Buckingham was attractive, educated and ran her own bakery. Her customers and her town loved her. After all, she was something of a local celebrity in New Albany, Ind. Just last fall, she was on the cover of Southern Indiana Living with her son.
She was also a veteran who could understand Chamblin’s experiences. The two fell for each other, and soon Buckingham was pregnant again.
Chamblin must have felt like a fresh start for Buckingham, too. In July 2013, she had finally opened a bakery named Bread and Breakfast in downtown New Albany, after years of selling baked goods at farmers’ markets and from roadside stands. Six hundred people attended the grand opening, and she wrote on the bakery’s Facebook page: “The bread has been flying directly out of the oven, our gluten free crowd is expanding and the word is out about our bacon cinnamon rolls. We have a dream team here at the bakery.”
But that same month, she ended her relationship with Bradley Sutherland, her son’s father, the Military Times reported. It had been a rocky relationship, and a rocky time in Buckingham’s life. She allegedly hit Sutherland, giving him a black eye. The two became engaged anyway.
Much like her bakery, Chamblin felt like a calm patch on a rough sea. Even Sutherland, then removed from the relationship, liked him.
“She told me, ‘I’ve been dating this guy for a little while now and I want to introduce him to [our son],’” Sutherland told the Daily Beast. “From the get-go, I liked him. … I trusted him.”
So, with them together, she focused on her work and shared custody of her son.
After returning from her second tour in Iraq in 2008 — earning a Good Conduct Medal and an Iraq Campaign Medal — kneading dough became an outlet, a relief. She baked it for family members while working on her second degree, this one in anthropology, from the University of Louisville. When she became pregnant with her son, she baked even more.
“When I was pregnant with my son, I had an insane nesting instinct,” she told the Courier-Journal. “I was baking, cooking and cleaning every minute. It never went away. I have obsessively baked ever since.”
Then, when preparing to move her bakery into a bigger space, she vanished.
“When she closed the doors, she didn’t tell her employees,” Brittany Enoch, owner of Classic Cuts barbershop, a neighboring business, told WLKY-TV. “They just heard from a text message, and she was gone.”
She had gone off to Tennessee with Chamblin, leaving everything at home, including her 3-year-old son, the Daily Beast reported. While she still made weekly trips to see the boy, she was scared of losing custody. The trips, which took hours each way, were wearing on her, the Military Times reported.
While she wasn’t baking fresh loaves of bread, she was busy allegedly trying to find someone to murder Sutherland.
The first person to whom she allegedly turned was Chamblin.
At first, when she allegedly asked him at the beginning of the year to make Sutherland “go away,” Chamblin thought she was kidding. A dark joke, no doubt, but a joke nonetheless. Slowly, though, her requests allegedly grew more detailed as she wondered aloud about the specifics — Where would it happen? How could Sutherland be killed? — and he began secretly recording their conversations, the Military Times reported.
Asking Chamblin might have seemed sensible, given his background in the military. In fact, Roane County, Tenn., Deputy Sheriff Tim Phillips told the Daily Beast, “She knew he’d been in the military in the past, that he was a Marine Corps sniper, and she felt that maybe he had friends that he had served with and would make [Sutherland] disappear.”
Chamblin brought those recordings to the Louisville police, who had a plan in mind.
Days later, Buckingham sat with a stranger and allegedly haggled over the price of murdering her ex-boyfriend.
“I want him gone,” she said, according to the Daily Beast, quoting the tapes. “I want him out of the picture.”
Was she sure? Yes. Did she want it to look like an accident, because that’s going to cost a little more? Yes. Was she sure she was sure? Yes, she allegedly said.
Her alleged mistake was a grave one — the man she spoke with wasn’t a hit man but an undercover agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The police immediately contacted Sutherland.
“When they brought me down to the police station and told me about this, the first thing I said is, “I’m being punked,'” Sutherland told the Daily Beast.
Beyond the simple fact that his ex-fiancee may want to kill him, what she was willing to pay struck a nerve. (Most outlets report that price at $3,000, though the Courier-Journal reports it as $30,000.)
“My life’s only worth $3,000?” he told the Daily Beast in an interview. “It’s like a … used car lot. Like bring us your tax check and we’ll get you a car — only this is more like bring us your tax check, and we’ll assassinate your ex-fiancee.”
But that isn’t what hurt the most.
The police decided to stage Sutherland’s death, fooling Buckingham into thinking the plan had gone off without a hitch, so she would pay the remainder of the fee.
“When the guy went to show the photos of my dead body — my son’s right there,” Sutherland said. “The fact that she would let a hired killer into the house while my son is there hurts me more than taking an attempt on my life.”
On Feb. 24, Buckingham was arrested and brought to jail in Roane County, which is about 40 miles west of Knoxville. She was charged with criminal intent to commit first-degree murder, and her bail was set at $150,000, according to a news release from the sheriff’s office and the local prosecutor.
Sutherland claims his ex-girlfriend and alleged would-be killer suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in the battlefield. He said one time he received a call from Buckingham’s mother, Debra, who told him that Buckingham had destroyed the apartment, “and there was a shotgun and chairs everywhere,” according to the Daily Beast. He also told Military Times that she was “dealing with some demons” after her time in the Marines.
Because of Chamblin’s actions, his former girlfriend, Laura Buckingham, is due in court for a preliminary hearing May 2.
Her son remains in New Albany with Sutherland.
“I would like her to be in jail for a while for my personal comfort,” Sutherland said. “I haven’t slept much.”