Briones said he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before his camera batteries died. He said he then helped other Marines remove the bodies and place them in body bags. He said his worst moment, and one that haunts him to this day, was picking up the body of a young girl who was shot in the head.
"I held her out like this," he said, demonstrating with his arms extended, "but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs."
As he spoke, his mother, Susie Briones, 40, a Hanford community college teacher, who was sitting beside him at the kitchen table, silently wiped away tears.
Earlier she confided to a reporter that her son called frequently from Iraq after he experienced nightmares over the little girl.
"He called me many times," she said, "about carrying this little girl in his hands and her brains splattering on his boots. He'd say, 'Mom, I can't clean my boots. I can't clean my boots. I see her.' "
Ryan Briones said that he and other members of the cleanup crew remained at the site until about 11 p.m. When he came back he said he dropped his Olympus 3.2 megapixel camera by the unmanned Sparta base command operations center. When he returned a few hours later he said it looked like the camera had been moved so he assumed someone had downloaded the pictures and he erased them all.
But whether the photos ever reached authorities, who also have pictures from an intelligence investigation team and another source, is not clear.
Briones also said that he did not want to give the impression that he still had copies of the photographs because he did not want his possessions or those of his family searched by Navy investigators. He said there had been several examples recently of Navy investigators confiscating computers and PlayStation consoles capable of storing photographs.
The photos later became the main focus of questions by investigators who interviewed Briones for several hours in Iraq in March, shortly before he returned home. In the second interrogation, which he said took place at the battalion headquarters at Haditha Dam north of the city of Haditha, investigators showed him photographs of the bodies similar to his but shot from different angles.
"They wanted to know if the bodies had been moved or tampered with," Briones recalled. He said he had not been interviewed by Navy investigators since his return, although other Marines in his company had been interrogated repeatedly for hours at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Camp Horno, part of sprawling Camp Pendleton.
In early April, less than 36 hours after his return from Iraq, Ryan Briones got into serious trouble in his hometown that he and his family say was related to stress from the Haditha incident.
Briones was charged with stealing a pickup truck, crashing it into a house, leaving the scene of the accident, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. A picture of the spectacular crash with a white Ford F-150 lodged in a Hanford living room appeared on the Hanford Sentinel's front page April 4.
Released from Kings County jail April 5 on $35,000 bond, Briones has a court date set in mid-June.
His mother said that her son has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and is being treated by a San Diego physician for his post-traumatic symptoms.
"My son saw what the Marines did, and he knew who did it before the Haditha investigations began," the mother wrote in a long letter to local authorities seeking leniency in the criminal cases.
"He saw the killings and knew who sent the word out to do the killings, he had to clean up the bodies of children who were sleeping in their beds and he saw his best friend die in front of his eyes."
Susie Briones said she is angry at what she described as the Marines' failure to adequately "decompress" him and other Marines when they come home from combat. She said she was writing a book to help other families avoid what she and her son are going through.
"I used to be one of those Marines who said that post-traumatic stress is a bunch of bull," said Ryan Briones, who has prescriptions for anti-depressants and sleeping pills. "But all this stuff that keeps going through my head is eating me up. I need immediate help."
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.