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Soldier faces 5 murder charges in 2009 shootings at Iraq clinic

May 18, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell will face murder charges -- and a possible death penalty -- in the 2009 shooting deaths of five people at a mental health clinic in Baghdad.
U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell will face murder charges -- and a possible… (LM Otero / Associated Press…)

A soldier accused of gunning down five fellow soldiers at a mental health clinic in Iraq after reportedly being harshly admonished and laughed at by Army psychologists has been ordered to face a court-martial on charges of premeditated murder and could face the death penalty, the Army announced Friday.

The recommendation to refer Sgt. John Russell on capital charges overturns the recommendation of the investigating officer who initially heard his case — the chief judge of the Guantanamo Bay war crimes court. He advised ruling out the death penalty because of the troubled sergeant’s "undisputed mental disease."

The May 11, 2009, shootings at the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Center in Baghdad, where Russell had earlier gone for help, sparked an Army review of mental health procedures. It also raised grave questions about how well the military was equipped to deal with soldiers facing the stress of multiple combat deployments.

Russell was on his third yearlong deployment to Iraq and had repeatedly told superiors he was thinking of killing himself. He had also exhibited signs of severe stress with psychotic tendencies but was handed off from one doctor to another, facing harsh questioning by one psychologist and what he perceived as belittling humor from another, according to court documents.

"This court-martial, in my opinion, will be the most important court-martial stemming from the war in Iraq,” said Russell’s lawyer, military defense attorney James Culp, who has handled several of the nation’s signature war crimes cases.

'This case is going to reveal not only shortcomings in the Army mental health system, but criminal shortcomings. John Russell was not only not treated by the mental health clinical professionals, he was mistreated," Culp said.

In their announcement, officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, said Russell faces five counts of premeditated murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of aggravated assault.

Killed in the assault were Navy Cmdr. Charles K. Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., who Russell felt had laughed at him when he sought treatment; Maj. Matthew Houseal, 54, of Amarillo, Texas; Staff Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; Spc. Jacob Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.; and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.

Russell, 47, of Sherman, Texas, was assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, Germany, and was nearing the end of his third deployment in Iraq when he began experiencing severe depression and paranoid feelings that people in his unit were out to get him. He first sought help from the unit chaplain, and then from mental health professionals.

"The government doctors say that at the time of the offense, he suffered from a major psychological disorder with psychotic features, and chronic, severe [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Culp said. "But the mental health professionals [in the field] thought he was malingering, and really abused him.”

Attempts to get help

Russell told one staff sergeant that what was happening to him "made him feel like he wanted to kill somebody," according to witness statements excerpted in the court record. He was taken first to the chaplain, who concluded he needed professional help outside the unit, and then to Maj. Hyrusso Fernbach, an Army reservist working at the Camp Striker Combat Stress Clinic.

Fernbach, an Army reservist who ordinarily worked as a prison psychologist in New Jersey, was only days from returning to the U.S. She had recently reprimanded a psychiatric nurse at the clinic, Capt. Brian Ropson, for being "too nice" to soldiers and told him he "needed to be a little sterner." She said she'd show him "how it should be done," according to the statements.

Russell was the next patient they saw, Ropson testified at Russell’s Article 32 preliminary hearing in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, according to court documents. Ropson said he was told to sit on a stool in a corner while Fernbach met with Russell.

"I experienced it as being aggressive and hostile … and I know Sgt. Russell felt very uncomfortable, and he kept looking to me for reassurance, but what do you do when a senior officer is there? You don’t do anything; you sit, and you listen…. It was rather grueling," Ropson testified.

He said the session lasted up to 25 minutes, but that he never felt "a sense of empathy — sympathy" from the psychologist.

Russell left the clinic after that, but he returned 10 minutes later and said, “I don’t ever want to come to this [expletive] place again,” Ropson said.

When Russell returned to his unit, 1st Lt. Mark Natalie testified, he “was visibly sick and looked terrible after his experience…. Sgt. Russell was convinced there was a conspiracy against him and that everyone in his chain of command was out to get him.”

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