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Did the system fail a soldier?

Defense attorneys argue that the Army's mental health system drove Sgt. John Russell to shoot five people at a clinic in Baghdad in 2009. Prosecutors say he's not insane but angry.

April 15, 2013|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Army Sgt. John Russell is accused in the 2009 slaying of five people at a combat stress center in Iraq. A plea agreement is being negotiated.
Army Sgt. John Russell is accused in the 2009 slaying of five people at a combat… (U.S. Army )

SHERMAN, Texas — Sgt. John Russell designed his new house here so there would be room for everyone: for him and his wife, Mandy, his wife's parents and his own. There was a doggie door for Louie and Queenie — "the little ones," he called them in his emails.

It was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life when he got home from Iraq, he'd say as he shared photos of the latest construction.

After a dispute with a co-worker, Russell fretted that he'd get demoted and would not be able to make the payments.

The sergeant, then 44, plunged into a depression, telling his executive officer at Baghdad's Camp Stryker that he "didn't want to be here anymore." His supervisors took the firing bolt out of his rifle and drove him repeatedly to the combat stress center, but Russell complained he was being mocked by the doctors.

"For the last two days I have been in hell," Russell wrote in a May 6, 2009, email to his wife. "I am left feeling so terrible you could just never know. These people are not good people, and I think that I am going a little crazy."

Five days later, Russell seized a colleague's Ford Explorer and M-16 rifle and returned to the clinic he'd left about an hour before. He fatally shot four mental health workers and patients before aiming his weapon over a filing cabinet at Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, who was hiding behind it, prosecutors say.

"Oh, God," Bueno-Galdos screamed as Russell laughed softly — an "evil chuckle," one survivor called it — and then allegedly aimed a bullet through the sergeant's right eyebrow.

The Army is seeking the death penalty on five specifications of premeditated murder — the only mass killing of U.S. troops in the Iraq war committed by a fellow American. This week, attorneys are negotiating a plea agreement that would take the death penalty off the table, but still allow the defense to argue that the Army's mental health system drove Russell to commit the killings.

"They turned a suicide into a homicide," said civilian defense attorney James Culp.

Prosecutors say that there is ample evidence that Russell was not insane but angry, that he drove to the clinic with a murderous plan and then coolly told police who arrested him what he'd done. "I think I killed some people," one witness heard him say.

How it began

After the shootings, Mandy Kernchen-Russell sold the house, pocketed the money and filed for separation.

"I'm now 37 years old. And he's never going to come home anymore," said Kernchen-Russell, who met Russell in 1997 during his deployment to Bamberg, Germany, and married him two years later.

"He was a good husband. When I came home from work, he had a bath waiting for me. My feet hurt, he'd massage my feet," she said.

Russell's mother, Beth, raised him and his three sisters. She said Russell was a nurturing boy — always bringing home stray animals and troubled kids — but struggled with dyslexia at school and dropped out when a medical problem forced him off the football team.

He suffered lingering nerve problems in his extremities that doctors said probably stemmed from his premature birth. From the time he was 2, his legs and head hurt so much that he'd kick his legs and bang his head into a pillow before he could sleep.

"He'd do it for hours at a time.... He might sleep 10 minutes here, a few hours there. Nobody understood exactly what was going on, we just knew he was in pain," his sister, Lisa Wilson, said from a hospital here shortly before she died of cancer last month.

Russell's wife said that after five combat deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, he had trouble sleeping and would wake up covered in sweat. But most of his co-workers told Army investigators that Russell seemed fairly happy on his last deployment in 2008, when he worked in a radio and computer repair shop near the Baghdad airport.

The trouble started when senior officers got in the middle of Russell's attempt to discipline a junior enlisted woman, allowing her to file her own workplace complaint against him.

"He looked me in the eye and said, 'Sir, are you going to let this happen?'" Capt. Mark Natale recalled at Russell's pretrial hearing. He erupted in fury, co-workers said, and over the next several days appeared glassy-eyed and bedraggled from not having been to bed. He said he was going to lose the house.

The record shows that Natale and his unit's noncommissioned officers responded sympathetically and with alarm. "He does not trust anyone, does not think any of us care for him ... and believes that he is better off dead," the unit chaplain, Capt. Peter Keough, wrote in an urgent email, unsuccessfully seeking to have Russell hospitalized on the day of the shootings.

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