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Marine denies a role in 12 Haditha killings

Wuterich says he shot only five men at the site of a 2005 roadside blast.

September 07, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine facing murder charges in connection with the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqis in Haditha, Iraq, told a hearing officer Thursday that he shot five men as they ran away from a roadside bomb explosion that killed a Marine and injured two others.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 27, making an unsworn statement at the end of his Article 32 preliminary hearing, denied shooting any of the other 19 Iraqis slain in and around three houses in the Euphrates River Valley town on Nov. 19, 2005. Among the dead were three women and seven children.

Wuterich, of Meridien, Conn., faces 12 counts of unpremeditated murder in the deaths of 17 of the 24 Iraqis. The hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis on whether Wuterich should go to a court-martial and, if so, on how many charges.

A fellow Marine and an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have testified that the five men were not fleeing when they were shot. Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, who had murder charges against him dropped in exchange for his testimony, said Wuterich shot the five with his M-16 while they had their backs to him and were standing near their car.

Whether the five were standing still or running could be key to whether Ware recommends to Mattis that Wuterich stand trial on murder charges for those killings.

Under the Marine Corps' rules of engagement, which are taught to infantry Marines at Camp Pendleton and in Iraq, it is permissible to shoot and kill persons running away from a roadside bomb attack, even if they are unarmed and there is no proof that were involved in the attack, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing for another Marine in Wuterich's squad.

Wuterich, who was the squad leader, said he thought the five men might have been running away from their car so they could detonate explosives in the vehicle from a distance.

"Engaging was the only choice," he said. "The threat had to be neutralized."

Seven of the charges against Wuterich involve killings in two houses near the site of the roadside bomb explosion.

Wuterich, in his statement, said that after the roadside bombing, his squad had come under fire from one of the houses. There has been no testimony, however, from other Marines that the shots came from the house. Witnesses have said that they heard gunfire from the general direction of the house.

"We were taking fire from that house," Wuterich said. "It was a hostile structure we were going into."

Wuterich said he and his Marines followed their training in how to "clear" houses occupied by suspected insurgents.

"The four of us aggressively advanced on the house, and on approach, I advised the team something like 'shoot first and ask questions later' or 'don't hesitate to shoot,' " he said.

Marines doing follow-up reports, however, found no evidence that the people killed in the house were insurgents or that insurgents had used the house as a vantage point to shoot at Marines.

Wuterich is among four enlisted Marines who were accused of murder in the Haditha incident.

Charges against Dela Cruz were dropped before his preliminary hearing. Mattis dropped charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt after a recommendation made by Ware.

Ware, who has had extensive war-zone experience in Iraq and in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, also recommended that Mattis drop charges against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum. Mattis has not announced his decision about Tatum.

In both cases, Ware said he found credible the assertion by Marines that they opened fire after hearing the sound of AK-47s being prepared to fire.

Four officers were accused of dereliction of duty for not ordering a war-crimes investigation. Charges have been dropped against one, and Mattis' decision is pending on a separate hearing officer's recommendation that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander, be sent to court-martial. The two remaining officers have yet to face preliminary hearings.

In a separate but related action, the Marine Corps announced Wednesday that it had issued letters of censure to Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, Col. Stephen W. Davis and Col. Robert G. Sokoloski for not ordering an investigation after learning that civilians had been killed in Haditha.

Mattis found that although the three were not criminally liable, their "actions, or inactions, demonstrated lack of due diligence on the part of senior commanders and staff."

Wuterich said that although he mourned the deaths of civilians, he believed that he made the right decisions "based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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