A few days earlier, Puckett had reached a deal with military prosecutors that would have let his client — a Marine staff sergeant facing nine counts of manslaughter — walk free. Now, the two-star general presiding over the court-martial was nixing the deal and sending the case back to a jury for verdict. Puckett understood why, of course. A plea bargain would be a shocking conclusion to the biggest war crimes case since Vietnam.
People would cry foul. But Puckett was convinced his client was being railroaded.
Wearing a black hoodie and a ball cap pulled low over his eyes, Puckett stared out across the empty beach as he spoke slowly and deliberately into the phone. Careers would be destroyed high up the chain of command. None of which is to say that Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was entirely blameless for the carnage wrought in the Iraqi city of Haditha on Nov.
The Connecticut-born infantryman, then 25 and a sergeant E-5 , had been the senior enlisted man on the ground. But the prosecutors had developed a theory of the case that went much further. They intended to paint Wuterich as the person responsible for some of the most heinous acts perpetrated during the rampage.
Six of the victims were children. Most had been shot in the head at close range.
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Initially, four enlisted Marines including Wuterich had been charged with carrying out the massacre.
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But even as the investigation was unfolding, three had been given immunity to testify against Wuterich. The court-martial had been the culmination of one of the longest and most expensive criminal investigations in U. And yet, three weeks into the trial, the prosecution appeared to be grasping at straws.
Before the prosecution team, headed up by Lt.
Sean Sullivan, had even rested its case, it approached Puckett with a plea bargain. In delivering his ultimatum, Puckett knew he was out on a limb. But in a way, what Puckett was threatening to expose on the evening of Jan.
It was a travesty of justice that had not only failed the victims of the massacre, but also, he believed, would allow cold-blooded murderers to go free. No less troubling was something that Puckett, a year Marine Corps veteran himself, had long suspected and of which he was now absolutely certain: this was the outcome the Corps had been angling toward all along. On the other end of the line was Lt. Kirk Kumagai, staff judge advocate to the convening authority, and the only person Puckett believed could effectively relay to Waldhauser the explosive potential of his allegations.
The call lasted about 90 seconds. Then Puckett put the phone down and waited.
Beside him, documentary filmmaker Michael Epstein, his face hidden behind the eyepiece of a Canon XH-A1, struggled to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Now, on the balcony six years later, Epstein had hundreds of hours of footage — including some he shot during a trip to Haditha in — but an incomplete story. He had begun to suspect early on that the prosecution was scapegoating Wuterich, but then the plea deal was proposed. Why would the prosecutors put so much effort into pinning the massacre on one man only to let him walk away?
And what made Puckett so sure the convening authority would eventually buckle and go along with the arrangement? Puckett offered an explanation. It took months of persistent emails to persuade Maloney to agree to an on-camera interview. Four more years would pass before Brady followed suit. Louis, Missouri, with his camera. The conversation started with the day Maloney got the call from his superiors informing him that he had been chosen, along with Brady, to lead the investigation.
The world knew something horrible happened, and there had to be an answer for it. It can be us as a Marine Corps. It can be a unit, or it can be a squad, or it can be a platoon, or it can be one man. And one man became the politically expedient answer.
T he sequence of events that culminated in the brutally efficient slayings of 24 unarmed civilians in a residential enclave of Haditha on Nov. But many observers believe the incident was set in motion long before the men of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines set foot in Iraq — on the day nearly 20 months before, when four Blackwater contractors were ambushed by an angry mob in Fallujah.
Two were strung from a bridge over the Euphrates.
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Footage of the grim spectacle was broadcast around the world. The Marines spearheaded two attempts to take Fallujah. Jim Mattis reluctantly commanded the first.
By the time Washington finally arrived at the same conclusion and ordered the Marines to halt their advance through the city, Mattis had lost 39 of his men. He was livid. Over the summer, the ancient city of , had transformed into a virtual fortress, replete with a vast network of tunnels and reinforced bunkers.
Foreign fighters flooded in from across the Middle East to wage jihad against the Americans. For the next six weeks, coalition forces fought house-to-house, and sometimes hand-to-hand, to clear every block of the city. Anything that even vaguely resembled a threat was fair game. Kilo Company was right in the thick of it. In their place came a fresh crop of of young infantrymen eager to help pacify Anbar Province.
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This time, however, instead of subduing the city with overwhelming violence, Kilo was moving toward the more methodical approach that Mattis had long advocated: to undermine the insurgency by establishing a foothold among the locals. Success would require a dramatic shift in mindset — from kill-or-be-killed to sheepdog vigilance — as well as strict adherence to rules of engagement that had been relaxed considerably for Falluja. In the days and weeks following the Haditha massacre, the Marine Corps pinned the blame on the enemy.
Behind the scenes, however, the U. Army Lt. But given the lack of solid information and the web of conflicting accounts, they tended to focus on the surrounding context rather than the events themselves. This, so the story went, was President George W. The after-effects of Fallujah may have offered a plausible explanation for why Haditha happened.
But what actually happened remained cloaked in mystery. There was no shortage of evidence to work with: witness and survivor statements, letters, laptops, and thumb drives confiscated from the Marines of Kilo Company, psychological records, footage from a military drone that was hovering over Haditha as the massacre unfolded, and of course the testimonies from the suspects themselves. And then there were photographs of the bodies — of a dead mother holding her dead son, of a blood-soaked bed full of children, of a corpse set ablaze, of a splayed skull soaked in urine.
There were entrance and exits wounds, spent bullet cases, bullet defects, signs of struggle, signs of fear, and perhaps most disturbing of all, indications that someone may have returned to finish off any survivors. The full story that emerged from the NCIS reports cannot be chalked up to a horrible mistake by Marines who feared for their lives.
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Nor did the evidence point to an adrenaline-fueled rampage or an orgy of vengeance. Instead, what Maloney and Brady uncovered pointed to a calculated series of murders. In their version, Wuterich is a participant in the massacre, but he is not the one who did the things that keep Maloney up at night.
In this picture provided by the U.
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