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Originally published December 1, 2010 at 1:25 PM | Page modified December 2, 2010 at 6:24 AM

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Stryker soldier makes plea deal in war-crimes case

In the first conviction to result from an Army war-crimes investigation of a Western Washington-based Stryker Brigade, Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens was sentenced Wednesday to nine months in prison as part of a plea deal that will also compel him to testify against as many as 10 other soldiers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — In the first conviction to result from an Army war-crimes investigation of a Western Washington-based Stryker Brigade, Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens was sentenced Wednesday to nine months in prison as part of a plea deal that will also compel him to testify against as many as 10 other soldiers.

Stevens pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for firing in the direction of two Afghan farmers, and reckless endangerment that resulted from tossing a grenade from a Stryker vehicle.

He also pleaded guilty to lying about these crimes to Army officials and to dereliction of duty.

Prosecutors said the crimes were serious enough to warrant discharging Stevens from the Army.

But in emotional testimony, Stevens pleaded for a chance to stay in the Army, where during a 7 ½-year career he had developed a reputation as an outstanding medic.

"That's my biggest concern is to show people that I am still a moral soldier ... and given a second chance I would do everything I can to make up for what I did," Stevens said. "I do deserve punishment, I realize that."

In his sentencing, Army Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks stripped Stevens down to the lowest service rank — private E-1 — but allowed him to remain in the Army.

Stevens, 25, is from Portland and served with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He is one of 12 brigade soldiers accused of war crimes in one of the most high-profile U.S. war-crimes cases to emerge from the war in Afghanistan.

Five soldiers have been accused of involvement in the murder of three Afghan civilians, and seven others — including Stevens — have been accused of lesser crimes.

In initial charging documents, Stevens was accused of crimes that could have sent him to prison for a maximum sentence of more than 19 years.

Under the plea agreement, Stevens gains a reduced sentence and Army prosecutors gain what is likely to be an important witness as they push forward with cases against the other soldiers.

Stevens was a friend of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a central figure in the war-crimes case who is accused of staging the murder of three Afghans to make them appear like legitimate combat deaths and also possessing body parts and other crimes.

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In a past interview with investigators in Afghanistan, Stevens said Gibbs had confided to him about some of the staged killings, and also about covertly collecting weapons.

Stevens also told investigators that Gibbs gave him a grenade last December.

It arrived in a box along with a sock that Stevens said he discarded. Gibbs later told Stevens the sock had contained a severed finger, according to Stevens' statement to investigators.

In court Wednesday, Stevens recounted how he kept the grenade but then became paranoid about having it.

In the spring of this year, Stevens said he decided to get rid of the grenade by throwing it off the back of a Stryker vehicle while on patrol. After it exploded, Stevens then fired several rounds and also directed another soldier to open fire.

Stevens said he later lied about what happened to make it appear that he and other soldiers had come under attack. That false account would earn Stevens and more than a dozen soldiers combat awards. After he confessed to the fraud, the awards were rescinded by the Army.

"It was possibly the worst thing in 20 years that I have encountered," testified Master Sgt. Mario Terenas, who was taken in by the lies. "It just made me from that point on lose trust in not just Sergeant Stevens but pretty much everyone around me."

Stevens also recounted what happened during a spring patrol with Gibbs in southern Afghanistan.

The soldiers approached a field where they saw two Afghan men. Stevens said the men posed no threat but Gibbs gave an order to fire.

Stevens told the judge that he did not want to hit the Afghan men, and purposefully fired some 75 yards away from them. He said that other soldiers who fired also did not hit the men.

"I did not intend to scare anybody, but I did," Stevens said. "Once I stopped firing, Sergeant Gibbs mentioned that we needed to work on our accuracy because it did not appear that anyone was hurt."

Stevens said that in an initial meeting with an Army investigator he lied about the incident by claiming that the two Afghans had something that resembled a rocket-propelled grenade.

In court Monday, Stevens said that the men in the field were standing erect, not trying to hide, and never posed any threat to the soldiers.

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

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