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Originally published September 29, 2010 at 9:54 PM | Page modified September 30, 2010 at 9:32 AM

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Army to investigate claims about man portrayed as ringleader in Afghan war-crimes case

Staff. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a central figure in the Afghanistan war-crimes case against Western Washington-based soldiers, also talked about killing a family while he served in Iraq, according to a sworn statement from a fellow soldier obtained by The Seattle Times.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Staff. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a central figure in the Afghanistan war-crimes case against Western Washington-based soldiers, talked about killing a family while he served in Iraq, according to a sworn statement from a fellow soldier obtained by The Seattle Times.

When Gibbs arrived in Afghanistan, he began talking to other soldiers about "getting away with some of these things," according to Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 22, a soldier who is accused of helping Gibbs murder three civilians in Afghanistan.

Morlock told Army investigators that Gibbs told some platoon members he had developed a plan to kill Iraqis driving in a car, and looked for a chance to carry it out.

The opportunity arrived while he was crossing a road carrying a Squad Automatic Weapon, a powerful machine gun, according to Morlock.

Gibbs told the soldiers he "turned around and sprayed down the vehicle" that carried the family and covered up the slayings by telling his commanders the car had failed to stop, according to Morlock's statement.

The Army has charged Gibbs with committing three killings of civilians in Afghanistan, possessing body parts and other crimes while serving in the southern province of Kandahar. He is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Other soldiers, in statements to Army criminal investigators, have portrayed Gibbs as the ringleader of the group that carried out the killings and other crimes, including beating one fellow soldier believed to be a drug informant. The investigation has resulted in charges against a dozen soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, at Lewis-McChord.

Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont., has denied involvement in any illegal activity.

Another squad soldier, Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas, Nev., accused of involvement in one of the Afghanistan slayings, said he never heard Gibbs talk about any crimes in Iraq or discuss any scenarios to kill Afghans, according to Wagnon's attorney, Colby Vokey.

Maj. Katherine Turner, a public-affairs officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said she could not comment on Gibbs' conduct in Iraq. The Washington Post, citing Army investigative reports, said Wednesday that the Army would re-examine the killing of the family in Iraq.

Gauging support

U.S. soldiers deployed to southern Afghanistan have been told that a crucial goal of the campaign is to win the confidence of the Afghan population, so they will become allies in the war against the Taliban insurgency.

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But Morlock, in his statement, said Gibbs displayed "pure hatred for all Afghanis and constantly referred to them as savages."

In a second tour of duty in Afghanistan that began in July 2009, Gibbs served as a squad leader with the Western Washington-based 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (since renamed the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division).

Soon after arriving in Afghanistan, Gibbs recounted his Iraq killings, using those stories as a way to gauge support for carrying out "scenarios" to kill Afghans, according to Morlock.

Several weeks later, when Gibbs believed he had the trust of several soldiers, he began developing the Afghan kill scenarios, displaying "off the book" grenades that could be placed near Afghans to make it appear that the victims presented a threat that would make their killings appear justifiable, Morlock said.

The three slayings took place around villages that were considered to support the Taliban. That made it easier to develop cover stories of an insurgent attack more readily accepted by commanders, according to sources who have reviewed the statements of Morlock and other soldiers. Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, gave detailed descriptions of how the killings were staged.

In the second killing in February, for example, Gibbs allegedly pulled an AK-47 machine gun — a weapon typically carried by insurgents — from his assault bag.

He then fired a couple rounds against a wall, according to Morlock. Then Gibbs shot an Afghan — a middle-aged man with a full beard — and laid the AK-47 at his feet.

Staging deaths

The practice of staging deaths has been reported in other investigations involving U.S. soldiers' misconduct during the Iraq war as roadside bombs killed and wounded many American soldiers. "I can tell you from past cases that the practice of soldiers using drop weapons does occur," said Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney who has been involved in Iraq war-crimes cases.

Conway represents Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, who is charged, with Gibbs and Morlock, in the killing of an Afghan civilian in January. In one instance described in a July 2008 Esquire magazine article, soldiers in 2007 planted evidence to cover up the execution of an Iraqi who stumbled upon their sniper's hide-out.

The killing "is legitimate to me. It's not legitimate to the law," said Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley, in the article written by Tom Junod. "If doing something a little bit dishonest keeps me and my men from going to jail one day, I am going to be a little bit dishonest."

Hensley later was found not guilty of murder charges but convicted of planting a weapon by a body.

In a case involving Marines in Hamdania, Iraq, a sergeant was convicted of killing a man and then planting a shovel by the side of the corpse to make it appear the man was digging a ditch to plant a roadside bomb.

In Iraq, Gibbs served with the Hawaii-based 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment. During his tour, the battalion was stationed in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.

Retired Capt. Walt Cartin, who served in the 1st Battalion but did not know Gibbs, said it was a difficult year. After publication of photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the civilian population soured on the American military.

"There was a very palpable sense of distrust," Cartin said. "There were kids who came up to our vehicles, and we would give them candy. But once the photos were published the parents would no longer allow that."

Cartin said the insurgents were also getting stronger.

But Cartin said he was proud of the way his troops conducted themselves. He said battalion leaders would not have tolerated any efforts to cover up illegal acts, such as placing weapons by corpses to make killings appear legitimate.

"I would have reported anything like that immediately," Cartin said. "That is clearly illegal. It is not the culture of the battalion to encourage anything like that."

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this story.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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