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Suspect Soldiers: Did Crimes in US Foretell Violence in Iraq?
Before Army Sgt. 1st Class Randal Ruby was accused in Iraq of beating prisoners and of conspiring to plant rifles on dead civilians, he amassed a 10-year criminal record in Colordao and Washington state for assaulting his wife and in Maine for a drunken high-speed police chase, for which he remains wanted.
Before Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes stabbed an Iraqi private to death, angering the soldier's unit of coalition soldiers, he was hospitalized after threatening suicide in high school, accused of assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing, and, in the months leading up to deployment, twice linked to drug use.
Before Army Spc. Shane Carl Gonyon was convicted of stealing a pistol at Abu Ghraib prison, he was convicted twice on felony charges and arrested four times, once for allegedly giving a 13-year-old girl marijuana in exchange for oral sex. He enlisted weeks after his release from a federal prison in Oregon.
A yearlong examination of military and civilian records by The Sacramento Bee involving hundreds of troops who entered the services since the Iraq war began identified 120 cases of people whose backgrounds should have raised the suspicions of military recruiters, including felony convitions and serious drug, alcohol or mental health problems.
Of those, 70 later were involved in controversial or criminal incidents in Iraq.
Ruby, Holmes and Gonyon were among those cases.
"These guys are out there carrying weapons, fighting on the streets with drugs in their pockets," said Tressie Cox, whose son, Lee Robert, had a history of drug and mental problems before he was charged with selling drugs in Iraq. "Shame on my son, but shame on all you people out there who are policing this and allowing this to continue to happen."
The 70 were among the tens of thousands of military personnel recruited or retained as the armed services, entering the sixth year of the Iraq war, lowered educational, age and moral standards and granted a growing number of waivers to applicants whose backgrounds previously would have barred them from serving.
From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of Army recruits receiving so-called "moral conduct" waivers more than doubled, from 4.6 percent to 11.2 percent. Others, The Bee found, were able to enlist because they had no official criminal record of arrests or convictions, their records were overlooked or prosecutors suspended charges in lieu of military service - akin to a now-defunct Vietnam-era practice in which judges gave defendants a choice between prison and the military.
"How in the hell can they legally possess a gun?" asked Montgomery County, Ala., Sheriff D.T. Marshall, when questioned about a soldier from his county.
That soldier, Eli C. Gregory, was convicted in an attempted home invasion and of felony theft in Alabama, making him ineligible to legally possess a firearm there. Yet the military gave him a rifle and sent him to Iraq, where he was convicted by the Army of assault and battery on a fellow soldier and discharged.
Gregory, who returned to Alabama after his court-martial, said during an interview that he still cannot legally possess a firearm in the United States.
The military defended its recruiting policies, including granting more waivers for past conduct.
"Standards in our society have changed over the years; we are a reflection of those changes," said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command. "Considering offering a waiver to otherwise qualified recruits is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call to duty."
Earlier this month, the Department of Defense announced a new system to categorize waivers by the severity of prior offenses to allow the services to analyze the link between waivers and future military behavior.
The examination looked at only a fraction of the 1.4 million people in uniform and was conducted largely without benefit of sophisticated criminal databases available to the military.
Still, The Bee linked dozens of soldiers and Marines with criminal records and other questionable backgrounds to misconduct in the military. In some cases, past misconduct appeared to forshadow future behavior.
"Criminal history is the best predictor of future behavior," said Shawn Bushway, a criminology professor at the University of Albany, N.Y., School of Criminal Justice. "Any time you lower your standards, you're going to raise the risk. No question about it."
Nine months before the death of the first of three Iraqis that Army sniper Michael A. Hensley was accused of murdering, members of a San Diego-area family witnessing his actions in Seward, Alaska, were so concerned about what they saw that they videotaped him.
The family, sharing a third-floor hotel room in Seward, awakened to screams from the parking lot below and peered out to see Hensley threatening a woman inside a Jeep, pounding on the vehicle with his fists.
"He obviously wasn't stable, just from seeing him the 20 minutes I did," said Alex Elling, who was 18 when he videotaped the incident.
Hensley "had bloody knuckles, and the windshield of the Jeep was broken," a Seward Police Department report said. Hensley, who had previously served six months' probation on a drunken-driving conviction in Georgia, pleaded no contest to the Alaska charges of disorderly conduct.
In Iraq, the military found Hensley guilty of planting an AK-47 on the body of an Iraqi he was accused of killing, but not guilty in any of the three killings.
In the months surrounding his enlistment into the Army in 2000, Ricky Allen Burke was the subject of two court cases for unpaid debt, and, according to Monticello, Ky., Police Chief Ralph Miniard, he was involved in two vehicle accidents. His wife, who left him before their second anniversary, claimed in a domestic violence petition filed in March 2000 that he threatened to kill her, causing her to flee to a police station.
Two months later, court records say, Burke confronted his wife again at a relative's house, and police cited him for violating the domestic violence order.
A domestic violence conviction could have triggered a federal law precluding Burke from possessing a firearm. But seven days after he enlisted, the criminal case was continued, one of several continuances before it was dismissed in 2002.
Three years later in Iraq, Burke shot and killed a wounded insurgent he claimed had moved toward a weapon. But soldiers contradicted his story in statements to investigators.
"(Burke) said to me, 'Let me shoot him. Let me shoot him. I got payback coming,' " Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein said, adding that he repeatedly ordered Burke not to fire since the insurgent was injured and Nein saw no weapon nearby.
Despite the testimony against him, Burke was found not guilty of the killing by a military court.
In December, the National Guard quit granting felony waivers. The Guard's chief recruiting officer, Col. Mike Jones, was quoted in the Army Times calling the previous policy "a risk," but he later told The Bee an increased number of applicants made the policy no longer necessary.
Of the more than 120 soldiers and Marines with questionable pasts examined by The Bee, at least 18 had felony arrests or convictions or histories of mental illness. At least eight of the 18 later were connected to incidents in Iraq, and a ninth fatally shot himself while on guard duty in Kuwait.
The military refused to disclose who required waivers to enter the military, citing privacy, but waivers were not required of all convicted felons.
Gregory, the Alabama felon prohibited from possessing a firearm, said he was allowed to join without a waiver because he was convicted of stealing less than $500, so the Army didn't technically consider the crime a felony. The Army confirmed that it does not require waivers for some felonies in which the crime loss is less than $500, but a spokesman noted that a felony waiver is required for larger amounts.
Spc. Shane Gonyon had four felony arrests and two convictions, but he had only to lie to avoid rejection.
Shortly after he was discharged from the Air Force in Wyoming for drunken driving in 1998, Gonyon was arrested in Colorado on suspicion of pointing a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol at a homeless man who had accused him of theft.
The following year, he admitted to stealing more than $10,000 in equipment from an Air Force base, and months later, he was accused of providing marijuana to a 13-year-old girl in exchange for oral sex, triggering a felony charge that resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanor child endangering.
Nineteen days after he walked away from a federal prison, Gonyon applied for the Michigan National Guard, claiming he had worked at a wood supply company during the period when he actually was incarcerated. He was accepted the following month, in January 2003.
Since Gonyon had previously served in the military, the Guard didn't require a complete background check. That practice also ended earlier this year, after a guardsman with a past felony conviction shot and killed four civilians.
Gonyon wasn't confronted about his criminal record until 2006, after an incident at Abu Ghraib prison, where he processed detainees. In late March or early April 2006, Gonyon stole a 7 mm pistol from a translator. He was caught trying to mail it to the United States.
"I deliberately concealed my arrest(s) and convictions," Gonyon told a court-martial panel, which convicted him of theft and other charges.
The military is required to screen applicants for drug or alcohol abuse, mental health history and prior criminal conduct.
Recruiters, however, are not required to call former employers, research all information held by law enforcement agencies, check civil court files or, unless a security clearance is involved, attempt to contact relatives, former spouses, schoolteachers and neighbors - all techniques used by law enforcement agencies to screen applicants.
Such checks could uncover applicants not necessarily fit for service, even though they lack serious criminal convictions.
The additional checks might find criminal defendants not prosecuted in exchange for agreements to join the military, for instance, or defendants in criminal cases who had their charges dropped or reduced in exchange for providing information to police.
When the military did its standard criminal background check on David Crawford, who entered the Army at age 18 in 2006, he had only a minor juvenile record, Cincinnati police said. A request to police for a more thorough check would have revealed much more.
"I would have told them he was a suspect in a murder case," said police Spc. John Horn, who questioned Crawford about the killing days before he left for boot camp. "When I interviewed him in September 2006, he admitted, because he was sniffling, that he was on a three-day cocaine binge."
Crawford was arrested by Cincinnati officers for the crime when he returned from boot camp in 2006, and the following year, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 28 years to life.
Asked why someone like Delano Holmes was allowed to deploy to Iraq, Marine Capt. Brett Miner, a prosecutor at Holmes' court-martial, said: "We're kind of short on bodies."
Indianapolis police records show that on Jan. 13, 2002, when Holmes was 16, officers dispatched an ambulance to his high school after Holmes threatened to kill himself.
Fifteen months later, Holmes was arrested for disorderly conduct at an Indianapolis mall and banned from returning there for a year. He returned 10 minutes later and was arrested on a trespassing charge.
Then, on April 14, 2004, a college student told police that Holmes had shoved him onto a bed and hit him in the forehead during a dispute over a vehicle.
Weeks later Holmes left for boot camp in San Diego.
In the months leading up to his 2006 deployment to Iraq, civilian police found Holmes in a pickup containing marijuana residue and drug paraphernalia. In a separate incident, the military disciplined him for failing a drug test given to members of his unit preparing to deploy to Iraq.
Section 6210.5 of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual says Marines confirmed to have used illegal drugs "will be processed" for separation. A Marine Corps spokeswoman said the regulation does not give a time limit for completing that separation process, but she acknowledged that commanders had not even started the process for Holmes.
Three months after he deployed, Holmes was standing guard at an outpost in Fallujah when he pulled out a 13¼-inch bayonet and repeatedly stabbed Pvt. Munther Jasem Muhammed Hassin, whose Iraq army unit was serving alongside U.S. Marines. An autopsy found Hassin suffered 17 stab wounds, 26 cuts and a severed spine.
Holmes then fired Hassin's AK-47 rifle to make it appear he had killed him in self-defense, the prosecutor told The Bee. Defense attorneys said the fight started when Hassin refused to put out a cigarette, which Holmes feared might alert insurgents.
A military panel at Camp Pendleton, Calif., found Holmes guilty of negligent homicide and making a false statement and sentenced him to 10 months in jail or, in effect, time served.
Holmes did not testify during his military trial, but read a statement. He stood silent for several minutes, turning pages in a notebook. Then his eyes filled with tears so large that they could be seen falling on the lectern from across the room.
Between sobs and silence, he finally spoke, calling himself a warrior and a Christian.
"I believe we are all products of our experiences," Holmes said. "God gave me more than I could handle."
Holmes' criminal record was not part of his court-martial, and media accounts identified him as a college student. The prosecutor acknowledged in a subsequent interview that he was aware of Holmes' record.
"I think that his character for violence was a contributing factor to the death of Private Hassin," Capt. Miner said.
COSTS AND CONSEQUENCES
For years the military was warned about applicants with criminal backgrounds.
A 1996 Pentagon study of more than 100,000 California recruits found that those with arrest records left the service at a rate 70 percent higher than those without such histories. A 2003 study warned that destructive behavior by troops with criminal histories or troubling backgrounds "could have the most serious consequences."
An October 2007 Army study shows that although recruits requiring conduct waivers re-enlisted at a higher rate, were promoted to sergeant faster and received more awards, they had a higher rate of desertion, misconduct and failure to complete alcohol rehabilitation.
Hassin, the Iraqi soldier killed by Holmes, had a relative assigned to the same post. His death angered the Iraqi soldiers serving with the Marines there.
"They took it pretty personal," Capt. Javier Torres testified at Holmes' court-martial. "After the incident, the Iraqis did not want to assume (their) post."
In another well-publicized incident, Army Spc. Mario L. Lozano Jr. fueled anti-war protest across Italy when he mistakenly shot and wounded an Italian journalist and killed her bodyguard at a checkpoint in Iraq. The shooting of Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent, and journalist Giuliana Sgrena, whose freedom Calipari had help secure, bolstered anti-war sentiment in Italy credited with helping elect a new government, which pulled its troops from Iraq in late 2006.
Though the shooting was the subject of hundreds of news accounts, including a "60 Minutes" segment, and described in two books, The Bee uncovered criminal records on Lozano not previously made public.
In 1994, for instance, a man who repossessed Lozano's car told Hollywood, Fla., police that Lozano threatened him.
"My Rottweiler was barking," Lozano explained in an interview. "I look out my window, and there's a guy rolling the car back. So I came out. I grabbed a bat."
Lozano joined the Army in 1998. Two years later, his wife dialed 911 and told Hollywood police that Lozano had hit her in the face with his open hand because she had been seeing another man.
"I've never done anything like that to any female," Lozano responded. He left after the incident and was back at his military post in Alaska in a day, he said, because "I know that ... even if she dials 911 and hangs up, the cops are going to come."
A domestic violence conviction could have ended Lozano's military career, but with Lozano in Alaska, records indicate, authorities had trouble pursuing the case. His wife subsequently filed for divorce.
In Alaska, Fairbanks police twice sought Lozano regarding threats to a man there, he was accused of writing bad checks, and eventually owed child support of more than $5,500, prompting a Florida court to take legal action.
Lozano left the active duty Army in 2001 but joined the National Guard in July 2003. Less than two years later, he was sitting atop a Humvee parked near a road leading to the Baghdad airport, manning an M-240B belt-fed machine gun that can fire 10 large-caliber rounds per second.
Lozano said he shone large lights on the vehicle carrying the Italians before firing, but Sgrena's book, "Friendly Fire," said the illumination and the shots came simultaneously.
An Italian court threw out the murder charge against Lozano, his attorney said, after realizing the United States is allowed to prosecute its own soldiers.
Lozano blamed the journalist for the shooting. "If it wasn't for her, it wouldn't have happened," he said. "It was her idea to go over there and mingle with terrorists."
Lozano said he left the Guard after commanders refused to let him deploy to Afghanistan.
"They got like 5,000 Italian soldiers over there," he said. "They don't want to create no kind of problems."
Like Lozano, several other soldiers and Marines linked to incidents in Iraq had questionable histories - obtained not as civilians, but as members of the armed services. They, too, were nonetheless deployed.
Three years after Randal Ruby joined the Army in 1985, civilian police near his post at Fort Lewis, Wash., arrested him on a charge of assault after Tacoma police officers reported finding him pacing amid belongings scattered across his living room. The officers reported that the left side of his wife's face was swollen.
Six months later, Ruby's wife again called officers, who found her scalp and forehead red from an apparent attack, and, in 1991, she obtained a restraining order after alleging Ruby "struck me several times."
Ruby was transferred to Fort Carson, Colo., and civilian police were called to the couple's home after his wife accused him of choking her.
He filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997, the same year he led three police officers in Maine on a high-speed chase that ended when he lost control of his pickup and crashed.
Ruby was indicted in that case on charges of eluding an officer, drunken driving, speeding more than 30 mph over the limit and driving without a license.
A warrant remained outstanding when he deployed to Iraq, where he was accused in 2006 of "drop kicking" one detainee and allowing a translator to beat another with a Kevlar vest.
"What was Sergeant Ruby doing when he (the detainee) started crying after he beat him in the head with a Kevlar?" a defense attorney asked Sgt. Justin Stubblefield during a military proceeding in 2007.
"He was laughing," the soldier responded.
Soldiers, including Ruby's driver, testified that the unit kept AK-47 rifles, known as "packages," in Humvees to plant on civilians killed by mistake. Once, Pfc. Nathan Huhn testified, Ruby ordered a "package" after telling his men to open fire and calling in an airstrike on an area populated by civilians.
Once the firing started, Huhn testified, "We maneuvered up there and still didn't see nobody ... a crowd of women, children and men, but nobody with weapons or like that. Sgt. Ruby told Staff Sgt. (Armando) Cardona (Jr.) to go ahead and send the package."
Cardona testified: "I grabbed an AK, walked up around my truck, looked for a spot" to throw it, then realized he couldn't reach across a canal.
Ruby, who said in an interview that he ordered his men to stop firing as soon as he realized civilians were in the area, was charged with nine offenses but found guilty of only one: disrespecting a superior.
That superior, Lt. Neale Shank, was found dead in a suspected suicide weeks before Ruby's court-martial.
Ruby was sentenced to a reprimand, in which a general wrote: "Your behavior is a disgrace to the Army."
Now retired and living in Kentucky, Ruby denied ever planting weapons, and said his soldiers were pressured to testify against him, especially after Shank's death. He also maintained that his civilian charges "have nothing to do with Iraq."
"I never robbed a bank or a 7-Eleven or smoked dope or any of that stuff that they're letting kids in the military for today because there's no draft," Ruby said. "I served my country honorably."
© 2008 McClatchy