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Originally published Friday, June 4, 2010 at 5:27 PM

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Lewis-McChord soldier charged in the slayings of 3 Afghan civilians

A soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord was charged Friday with murdering three Afghan civilians. Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 22, was the first soldier to be returned to the U.S. and charged as part of a broader investigation that some fear could be a blow to the U.S. military's credibility in southern Afghanistan.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord was charged Friday with murdering three Afghan civilians.

Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 22, was the first soldier to be returned to the U.S. and charged as part of a broader investigation that some fear could strike a blow to the U.S. military's credibility in southern Afghanistan.

The Seattle Times has learned that a second soldier is being detained in Kuwait as part of the investigation and that up to five soldiers could end up facing murder charges. The U.S. military last month said the case involves "allegations of illegal drug use, assault and conspiracy."

The military alleges the slayings took place over several months in the remote Kandahar province.

Morlock, an infantryman, is from Wasilla, Alaska. He was assigned to the B Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He entered the military in June 2006 and trained at Fort Benning, Ga., before reporting to Lewis-McChord in December 2006.

He was sent to Afghanistan with his unit last July, his first deployment. The military alleges the murders took place between January and May. Morlock is also charged with assaulting another soldier in his unit.

"This is very, very serious," said Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a spokeswoman at Lewis-McChord. "The command is taking it very seriously. The case will continue to be investigated aggressively and prosecuted aggressively."

Parker said Morlock could face punishment of up to life imprisonment or the death penalty if found guilty. She said Morlock would be appointed a military defense attorney and could also choose to hire a civilian defense attorney.

A group of about nine soldiers from the Stryker Brigade was initially investigated on suspicion of drug offenses, according to McClatchy Newspapers. The soldiers were deployed at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, a remote outpost west of Kandahar city. The investigation led to accusations that soldiers from the unit had shot and killed three Afghan civilians in a series of confrontations over several months.

McClatchy reported that if true, the allegations could undermine the military's already shaky credibility in the area as it gears up to target the Taliban's spiritual capital of Kandahar.

The military reported that the Army's Criminal Investigation Command started investigating "after receiving credible information from the soldiers' unit" during May.

Court records from Alaska and Washington indicate that Morlock has faced previous charges in the Northwest.

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When he was 15, Morlock was charged in Alaska with leaving the scene of an accident involving an injury or death and received a deferred prosecution. In Pierce County two years ago, Morlock's wife sought a domestic-violence protection order in a case that was resolved. Last year, he was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, and was found guilty of the latter charge.

On his Facebook page, Morlock includes an approximate quotation from "A Few Good Men": "I will never explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of freedom that my brothers in arms and I provide, then questions the manner in which we provide that freedom."

Parker said that since the 3,800 soldiers in the Stryker Brigade moved into Kandahar province last summer, about 36 soldiers from the brigade have died, including 33 from combat-related causes.

"They've been in a tough fight," she said.

She said that the investigation into Morlock is likely to take a long time, and if the charges stand, the military equivalent of a grand jury would be called before a general court-martial takes place.

Parker said she couldn't comment on any investigation taking place in Afghanistan or on whether other soldiers may be returned to the U.S. to face charges.

"We are in the early stages of a criminal investigation," she said.

Seattle Times news researcher David Turim and reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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