BERLIN — A German prosecutor announced Tuesday that he is seeking murder charges against three U.S. teenagers after they reportedly confessed to hurling large rocks from a highway overpass in a dangerous game that killed two drivers and injured five passengers.
In a troubling incident that could undermine relations between American troops and their German hosts, the youths--all children of U.S. Army soldiers--told police investigators in Darmstadt that they had been lobbing stones as big as soccer balls from the pedestrian bridge for weeks before the deadly strikes Sunday night.
Falling stones hit at least four cars on the busy stretch of the A3 autobahn connecting Frankfurt and Heidelberg shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday, Darmstadt police spokesman Heiner Jerofsky told reporters. One rock the size of a small loaf of bread smashed through the windshield of a compact car driven by a 20-year-old Darmstadt woman, killing her and critically injuring her 75-year-old grandmother. A 41-year-old mother of two small children from nearby Pfungstadt also was killed.
Four U.S. students were arrested Monday night, but one, a 15-year-old, was released once interrogators learned that he had left the overpass before the rock throwing began.
The other three, ages 14, 17 and 18, were taken to a juvenile detention facility pending court approval of murder and attempted murder charges, a move that was expected within 24 hours, Darmstadt chief prosecutor Georg Balss said at a news conference.
If convicted under Germany's juvenile justice laws, the teens could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in a German youth facility.
German courts have jurisdiction over the dependents of U.S. troops posted in Germany, and all three will be tried according to German law, Balss said. But he added that it had not been decided whether to try the 18-year-old as an adult or a juvenile.
In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that, between 1987 and 1997, an average of 18 people a year were killed on U.S. roadways by thrown or falling objects.
The footbridge over the Darmstadt highway connects the U.S. Army's Lincoln housing complex with the grounds of an American school that the youths attend. The narrow overpass is flanked by 7-foot-high walls of reinforced plastic for safety, but the teens apparently managed to lob the heavy stones over the barriers and could presumably hear the shattering windshields and collisions that resulted, said Gottfried Stoermer, head of a special investigative commission.
"From what we know, they were quite sure of having scored a hit and yet they continued," he told reporters in Darmstadt.
Because suspicion immediately fell on the housing complex residents, German authorities and U.S. military police Monday combed the neighborhood that is home to 1,800 soldiers and family members, appealing through loudspeakers for any information about the assailants.
Within a few hours, the police patrols had gathered about 80 referrals to four youths, who were arrested later that day, Stoermer said.
U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen extended condolences to the families of the victims and assured German authorities that the U.S. military police in the region will provide all needed assistance.
"On behalf of all Americans, particularly the U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who serve side by side with the Germany military, ensuring peace and stability throughout Europe, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims who have experienced a terrible and senseless loss," Cohen said in a statement distributed by the U.S. Embassy here.
Darmstadt, home of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, was the thriving center of the U.S. military presence in Germany during the Cold War era, when 250,000 American troops were stationed in the country.
But a continuous scaling down since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Communist empire has dropped the number of U.S. troops here to 73,000. About 4,000 soldiers and 6,000 dependents and U.S. civilians remain posted in Darmstadt, a city of 140,000 just south of Frankfurt.
In the 1980s, tensions between Germans and U.S. soldiers were heightened when low-flying exercises resulted in a rash of accidents in German communities. An August 1988 air show disaster at Ramstein Air Base killed 70 people who were watching the stunt planes from the ground, and four months later, an A-10 fighter plane on a training mission crashed into an apartment house in Remscheid, killing the pilot and six Germans.
U.S. military personnel have been in the spotlight elsewhere: In Japan in 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa involving three American servicemen triggered protests against the large U.S. military presence on the island.
But the stone-throwing incident was the first in recent memory to cost German civilian lives through malicious actions.
"Every violent death, every violent crime is senseless. But this case of the stone-throwing onto the autobahn is more distressing than others," the local Darmstaedter Echo newspaper commented in an editorial released ahead of today's publication. "No one can protect himself from stones falling from heaven, not even in his own city on his everyday journey home."