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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: MILITARY INVESTIGATION

2 U.S. soldiers charged with murder, planting weapons

July 01, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Two U.S. soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder in connection with the deaths of three Iraqis and with planting weapons on the bodies to cover up their crimes, the Army announced Saturday.

The men were identified as Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley of Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., of Laredo, Texas. Hensley faces three counts of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and planting weapons, the military said in a statement. Sandoval faces one count of premeditated murder and one count of planting a weapon.

The crimes allegedly took place between April and June around Iskandariya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, the military said. The area is part of the "triangle of death," a stronghold for Sunni militants who have been at war with U.S.-led troops and Iraq's Shiite majority since shortly after the 2003 invasion.

Sandoval was detained Tuesday while home on two-week leave and was sent to Kuwait, where both are being held in solitary confinement.

Juan Dominguez, a second cousin reached by telephone in Laredo, said he lives two doors from Sandoval's parents. He said Sandoval had served in the ROTC and was eager to go to Iraq.

"He always liked Army stuff," Dominguez said. "He was really into going to Iraq. He wanted to see what it was like. I told him, 'Nobody wants to go over there, but I just hope God brings you back.'

"I never knew him to be a troublemaker," said Dominguez, who added that he had been unaware of the arrest. "He used to be a nice kid."

Members of Hensley's family could not be reached for comment.

The men had been based in Iraq at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division from Ft. Richardson, Alaska.

The inquiry, conducted by the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command, was opened after fellow soldiers informed commanders of their suspicions. The men now face Article 32 hearings, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing, which will determine whether a court-martial is warranted.

The killings happened not far from Mahmoudiya, where three U.S. soldiers were captured during an ambush in May. The Al Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.

The body of one soldier was found in the Euphrates River; the other two men are classified as missing.

Last year, five soldiers were charged in connection with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the slayings of her parents and younger sister in Mahmoudiya. Two of the soldiers have been convicted and sentenced to 90 and 100 years in prison. The other three are awaiting trial.

Two U.S. soldiers near Mahmoudiya were captured last summer and killed, apparently in revenge.

But Lt. Col. Randy Martin, a military spokesman, said the latest charges would not damage the U.S. military's reputation with the local population.

"The enemy lies. The enemy tortures, murders and kills and has no standards. We do have a standard. The American people trust that we will do the right thing," Martin said. "Justice will be served."

The U.S. military is still coping with the fallout from an incident in November 2005 in Haditha, a town in western Iraq where a Marine unit is accused of killing 24 Iraqis in a rage after one of its men died in a bomb blast.

Three Marines are facing murder charges and four officers stand accused of orchestrating a cover-up.

ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writer Faye Fiore in Washington contributed to this report.

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