Court-martial starts against sergeant in Iraq rampage
Court-martial proceedings for Sgt. John Russell open at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Russell has acknowledged killing five people in 2009 at a mental-health clinic in Iraq.
Seattle Times staff reporter
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — On the afternoon of May 11, 2009, Sgt. John Russell hijacked a white Ford Explorer at a U.S. military base in Baghdad, drove it to a combat-stress clinic and paused to smoke a cigarette.
Russell then exited the vehicle, armed with an M16 rifle, and began a deadly onslaught, gunning down a psychiatrist, a clinical social worker, two patients and a patient escort who was shot in the head as he hid underneath a desk, according to a prosecutor who spoke Monday at Russell’s court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
It was the worst case of troop-on-troop violence of the Iraq war, and the shock of the five deaths was compounded by the scene of the crime — a place that was supposed to be a safe haven where soldiers could seek treatment for mental wounds.
In April, as prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, Russell, 48, admitted to carrying out the killings. During the court-martial that will unfold in the days ahead, an Army judge, Col. David Culp, will rule whether the slayings were the unpremeditated outburst of a suicidal soldier, or whether Russell acted with calculating premeditation to avenge what he felt was shoddy treatment for his mental-health crisis.
“This is not a case about rage. This is a case about revenge,” said Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, an Army prosecutor, in his opening arguments on the first day of the court-martial.
Defense attorneys did not present opening arguments Monday. But in April testimony, Russell said he was angry about his treatment at the clinic earlier that day by an Army psychiatrist Russell believed had encouraged him to commit suicide, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune.
“I was finished fighting,” he said. “I didn’t want to live anymore. I wished someone would put a bullet in my head.”
At the clinic, Russell was not able to target the doctor who had angered him, but in his assault, he gunned down Navy Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle, 52, and four Army personnel: Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54; Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, 25; Spc. Jacob Barton, 20; and Pfc. Michael Yates, 19.
In Iraq, Russell was assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion, which was based in Germany. But because the battalion was under the command of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord unit at the time of the killings, the court-martial is unfolding at the Western Washington base.
In recent years, the base has been the scene of other high-profile prosecutions, including the 2011 court-martial of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who was convicted of the premeditated murder of three Afghan civilians and received a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
Russell was on his third tour of duty in Iraq at the time of the killings and would later be diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In pretrial motions Monday morning, defense attorneys argued for introduction of expert testimony that Russell had abnormalities in the structure and functioning of his brain and that could have affected his ability to control behavior.
This analysis was conducted by Ruben Gur, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. It was disputed by two other researchers called to testify by the prosecution, which asserted Russell did not exhibit any brain abnormalities.
The judge ruled that Gur’s analysis could be cited during the trial as part of a broader presentation.
During the Monday afternoon start of the court-martial, one witness, retired Staff Sgt. Richard Enos, was called to testify about the hours before the killing.
Enos testified that he took Russell to the clinic on the morning of May 9, 2009, to see a doctor. While they were there, Russell rushed out of the clinic. A doctor chased after him and asked that military police be called.
According to Enos, Russell told the military police: “I want to go home. Lock me up. ... I’m done.”
But the MPs did not lock Russell up. Instead, they told Enos to drive Russell back across the sprawling base to his unit.
When the Ford Explorer arrived back at the battalion, Russell reached into the back of the vehicle, grabbed Enos’ M-16, and said he would shoot if the vehicle keys were not handed over.
“I looked into his face. He had no expression. No emotion,” Enos testified.
Enos gave him the keys. Russell then jumped into the vehicle, and raced off back to the clinic, where he carried out the killings, according to prosecutors.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org\