Army hearing for Fort Lewis sgt. accused of Afghan murders


by GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News and Associated Press

Posted on November 9, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 9 at 6:33 PM

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Army sergeant accused of masterminding a plan to kill Afghan civilians for sport and goading other soldiers to do the same appeared at a military hearing Tuesday to determine whether there is enough evidence to court-martial him.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs is charged with a string of crimes by the U.S. Army, including murdering Afghan civilians, keeping body parts of dead Afghans, and keeping captured or confiscated weapons, including a rocket propelled grenade, for his personal use. 

Fellow soldiers say Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs also threatened them for threatening to blow the whistle, collected fingers of the dead and found it amusing to slaughter animals with his assault rifle.

In a tiny courtroom Tuesday, Gibbs faced what is known in the military as an Article 32 hearing, roughly the equivalent to a civilian grand jury that considers evidence and determines whether prosecution should move forward with the case.

In this proceeding, a military judge serves as an investigator and will ultimately determine whether Staff Sgt. Gibbs will face a court-martial. 

However, Gibbs is not alone in the case. As many as 14 other soldiers who were part of the 5-5 Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan in late 2009 and early 2010 may have been involved, though not all are charged.

Presiding officer Col. Thomas Molloy said Tuesday that attorneys for 10 of the other 11 soldiers charged -- some with killings, others with other offenses -- say they are unavailable to testify. The 11th has not been called.

Gibbs, a 25-year-old from Billings, Mont., is the highest-ranking of the five soldiers charged in the murders of three civilians during patrols in Kandahar Province this year.

Gibbs arrived in the platoon late last year and soon began telling his subordinates how easy it would be to kill civilians, some soldiers said in statements to investigators.

He reportedly spoke of getting away with killing a family when he served in Iraq -- a claim investigators are still looking into.

The soldiers said he devised scenarios under which he could kill Afghan civilians, suggesting in one case that if he and his men came across someone in a village flagged as Taliban-influenced, they could toss a grenade and claim they had been responding to a threat.

"He liked to kill," said Spc. Adam Winfield, who said he tried to blow the whistle on the alleged murder plot before taking part in the final killing. "He manipulated a lot of us into doing what he wanted us to do."

Gibbs also illicitly collected weapons -- including an AK-47 and a rocket-propelled grenade -- which he could plant on the bodies of dead civilians to make them appear to be combatants, the soldiers said.
   In addition to the killings, Gibbs and some of his men fired at -- but missed -- two unarmed farmers during a patrol in late March, investigators were told.

Gibbs falsely reported that they shot at three combatants, one armed with a rocket launcher, according to Staff Sgt. Robert G. Stevens, of Portland, Ore., who said he took part in the attack but tried to miss the farmers. The three were not killed or wounded, Stevens said in a sworn statement.

Stevens, Gibbs and four other soldiers are charged with conspiring to commit aggravated assault in that incident.

The probe of the killings started after a witness in a drug investigation, Pvt. 1st Class Justin Stoner, reported being badly beaten by a group of soldiers led by Gibbs.

Stoner said Gibbs and the other central figure in the case, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, later returned to his room, where Gibbs laid a set of severed fingers on the floor as Morlock warned him not to rat.

"I believe he has no regard for any life in general," Stoner said of Gibbs. "I have watched him slaughter animals with his M-4 and finding it amusing is just completely wrong."

After the beating, Stoner told investigators he believed Morlock had three unjustified kills.

The first was in January. Morlock told investigators that it happened a few weeks after Gibbs gave him an illicit grenade and told him he should carry out the scenario they had discussed.

Morlock said he tossed the grenade at a man in a field as another soldier, Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, shot; Holmes says he had no knowledge of any plot to kill civilians.

Winfield sent messages to his parents in Cape Coral, Fla., after that killing, telling them his colleagues had murdered a civilian. They were urging him to get one of his own, he said, and he was being threatened to keep quiet.

Winfield's father called Lewis-McChord that day and says he told a sergeant about his son's situation and urged the Army to intervene.

Gibbs is accused of killing a civilian in February, a week after Winfield's father made the calls, and dropping an AK-47 by the victim's body to make it appear he was armed. Spc. Michael Wagnon also is accused of participating in that killing, but denies involvement.

In the third killing, in May, Gibbs is accused of tossing a grenade at a civilian as Morlock and Winfield shot. They told investigators the victim posed no threat; Winfield, who said he felt pressured by Gibbs, called it "the worst thing I've ever done in my life."

Morlock told investigators he was deathly afraid of Gibbs even as he participated in killings. But other soldiers from the platoon said Gibbs was well-liked and that his competence likely saved lives.

Gibbs insists the deaths were appropriate engagements, said his lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, who declined to comment further.

Gibbs is represented by a military attorney as well as a civilian attorney.

The Article 32 hearing is expected to last two days, with a decision in the coming weeks.