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Originally published March 16, 2012 at 3:44 PM | Page modified March 17, 2012 at 11:42 AM

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Friends call Afghan killing suspect Robert Bales trusted soldier, family man

The Army staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians during a rampage through two isolated villages Sunday has been identified as a Lake Tapps man who joined the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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The Army staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 unarmed Afghan civilians during a rampage through two isolated villages Sunday has been identified as a Lake Tapps man who joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sgt. Robert Bales, an Army sniper from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was on his fourth combat tour when he is alleged to have wandered off on his own from a small outpost to commit an atrocity that has strained U.S.-Afghan relations and saddened his colleagues.

There is little indication of a motive behind the slaughter, which included the shooting deaths of nine children. Some corpses were burned.

And the fact that Bales is a seasoned combat veteran and noncommissioned officer of the sort the Army has relied on through 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan only deepens the mystery.

Bales, 38, was flown Friday from Kuwait to the high-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he is being held pending charges.

His neighbors, friends and comrades-in-arms have expressed grief and disbelief at the accusations.

"He was a great noncommissioned officer," one of Bales' former commanding officers told The Seattle Times on Friday. "When I found out who the name was, I nearly fell off my chair and I had a good cry."

The officer, who commanded Bales during intense fighting in Iraq, where the suspect served a total of 37 months, asked that his name not be used because Bales has not been identified formally by the Army as the suspect.

Bales has served at Lewis-McChord and lived in the area since 2002, moving here from Florida, according to Army and public records and interviews with friends and acquaintances. He is a native of Ohio. The Army listed his home of record as Jensen Beach, Fla.

A neighbor described him as friendly and good with his two young children.

His wife, Karilyn Bales, is a project manager at Amaxra, a Redmond marketing and public-relations firm. Records show she also had worked as a project manager at now-defunct Washington Mutual.

The couple bought their house in Lake Tapps in November 2005, county records show. They paid $280,000 for a four-bedroom, two-story home built in 1990. The house was listed for sale March 12.

Karilyn Bales was eager to "stabilize her home life" and wanted to sell the family's house, according to John L. Scott real-estate agent Phillip Rodocker, who met with her March 9, two days before the massacre.

She said her husband was on his fourth tour of duty and was in Afghanistan. "I think she was ready to have him home," Rodocker said.

The house was put on the market Monday for $51,000 less than the couple paid for it in 2005, according to Seattle-based Zillow. But Rodocker said she left a voice-mail message the next day, asking that it be pulled off the market because of a "family emergency."

The home is in a wooded area not far from Lake Tapps, a Pierce County area northeast of the base. A Realtor's lockbox was attached to the front door Friday, and empty boxes, trash and other items were piled on the front porch.

Robert Bales was on military duty when his first child, a daughter, was born in December 2006. He was eager to know the baby's gender before birth and teased his wife about withholding phone calls from abroad unless she told him.

"Bob on the other hand cannot stand to wait for anything," Karilyn Bales wrote on her blog in May 2006. "Patience is not one of his virtues, especially when it comes to surprises. He simply cannot wait for the surprise to come."

But a March 2011 blog post indicates Robert Bales was considering leaving the Army after being passed over for promotion to sergeant first class.

Bales has had scrapes with the law.

In 2002, he was ordered to undergo 20 hours of anger-management counseling after he was arrested at a Tacoma hotel for investigation of assault, The Associated Press reported. Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said the case involved a woman other than his wife, whom he married in 2005.

The State Patrol database shows Bales was arrested for drunken driving in 2005 and had a blood-alcohol level of more than .14 percent after drinking at a University Place bar. It does not appear he was charged.

The News Tribune reported that court records show Bales was cited for a misdemeanor hit-and-run incident in October 2008 in Sumner. He was given a 12-month suspended sentence and paid a $250 fine.

The News Tribune also reported that records show Bales was seen on Oct. 11, 2008, running from an accident scene shortly after midnight on the Sumner-Tapps Highway. It was a single-car rollover accident and no other drivers were involved, records show.

Witnesses reported seeing "a white male wearing military-style uniform, shaved head and bleeding," fleeing on foot and running into nearby woods. A police officer spoke to Bales, the owner of the car, who said he had fallen asleep behind the wheel.

Alcohol use, the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the stress of multiple combat deployments are all factors likely to be scrutinized during the investigation into Sunday's shootings.

The New York Times has quoted senior military officials as saying Bales had been drinking against regulations before the killings.

Browne, his attorney, said the soldier has "never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's never said anything antagonistic about Middle Eastern individuals."

"He's generally been very mild-mannered," Browne said.

The former commanding officer who spoke to The Times was among several sources who said Bales distinguished himself in Iraq at the bloody and one-sided Battle of Zarqa, also known as the Battle of Najaf, in January 2007. About 170 Stryker troops confronted a well-armed, fortified force of Shiite fighters after a U.S. helicopter was downed.

Over two days, some 250 enemy fighters were killed and 80 others wounded in a frightening display of firepower. The Americans didn't suffer a single casualty.

Afterward, the soldiers turned around and provided medical assistance and humanitarian aid to the survivors and their families.

"I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day," Bales said in a 2009 article published about the battle in the Northwest Guardian, a Lewis-McChord publication. "For the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us.

"I think that's the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy," he said.

The officer who commanded Bales that day told The Times on Friday that Bales earned an Army commendation during the battle. The officer said Bales' maturity stood out.

"He was the guy who didn't get excited, because he had more life experiences," the officer said. "If you picked 10 guys to go into combat with, he would be on the list."

Browne, the attorney, has described Bales as a "highly decorated" soldier who had been injured twice in combat, including a head injury in the crash of a Stryker vehicle and another incident in which he said Bales lost a portion of a foot — injuries that typically would result in a Purple Heart decoration.

However, Army records released Friday show numerous commendations for Bales but not a Purple Heart.

The shock over the killings is amplified by Bales' status as a senior and experienced noncommissioned officer, long considered the backbone of the military.

Other soldiers accused of war crimes often have been junior soldiers, such as Jeremy Morlock, who was 22 and on his first tour of duty in a combat zone when he was accused of helping to carry out the 2010 murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians.

Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Al Bjerke, of Spanaway, said he commanded Bales through three tours in Iraq, where he watched him advance from machine-gunner to team leader and then squad leader.

"He was a great, great soldier ... trustworthy, honest and mature," Bjerke said Friday. "I'm not sure what happened.

"Unless you're there on the ground and you knew what happened before, during and after the incidents, you just don't know," he said. "All I can tell you is I can't believe it's as cut and dry as what's being reported."

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staffers Hal Bernton, Jack Broom, Steve Miletich, Lark Turner, Bob Young, Emily Heffter, Christine Willmsen, Miyoko Wolf, David Turim and Gene Balk contributed to this report.

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