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Army sergeant pleads guilty, describes killing 5 fellow servicemen

Sgt. John Russell gives his first public account of the shooting in Iraq in 2009. Prosecutors plan to argue his actions were premeditated — more severe than his plea of second-degree murder.

April 22, 2013|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • "What I remember most was I just wanted to kill myself,” Army Sgt. John Russell told the judge.
"What I remember most was I just wanted to kill myself,” Army… (Associated Press )

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — U.S. Army Sgt. John Russell pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of five fellow service members and the attempted murder of another in Iraq in 2009 after the government agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Russell, 48, was dispassionate and matter-of-fact as he gave his first public account of his methodical march with an M-16 rifle through the Camp Liberty combat stress center — the only mass killing of Americans by a U.S. serviceman during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I just did it out of rage, sir," he told the judge, Col. David Conn, as he described walking from room to room, firing at mental health workers and patients.

"What I remember most was I just wanted to kill myself. One hundred percent, I had decided to kill myself."

Family members of two of the victims listened in the courtroom. The mother of Pfc. Michael Yates Jr. broke down and had to leave as Russell calmly described chasing her son to the mental health clinic's front door and fatally shooting him in the chin after Yates grabbed a gun to try to stop him and found it unloaded.

The burly sergeant, wearing a green dress uniform, detailed what was going through his mind as he fired his rifle, and his attempts in the days before that to get help.

Russell said he was convinced his uncontrollable anger — resulting from an otherwise routine work dispute — stemmed from mental problems he had long been battling.

With a family history of depression, Russell's case was severe, doctors said, tinged with "psychotic features" and post-traumatic stress disorder. A recent scan found that, possibly due to previous injuries, the areas of Russell's brain that govern impulse control and fear were not functioning properly.

After a confrontation with his commanding lieutenant over the workplace issue, Russell said, "I personally cannot remember being more angry at any point in my life."

Russell said he was unable to sleep and became convinced that members of his unit were out to ruin him. He saw at least two mental health providers who treated him harshly instead of helping him, Russell said, and gradually "realized I didn't want to be alive anymore." He went to his last appointment, with Army Lt. Col. Michael Jones, a psychiatrist at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic.

"I said he needed to either legitimately help me or send me back to my unit so I could kill myself," he recounted.

Jones, he said, "leaned over very close to me" and put his hands on both sides of Russell's face. "He said, 'You're fixed.'"

Russell said he walked out with Jones following him, and in the parking lot "he was yelling at me, and I was yelling back."

"I looked up and said, 'It's all right, sir. You made your choice.'… He had made the decision not to help me, which means it was all right for me to kill myself.… He replied, 'No soldier, you made your decision.'"

Back at his unit, Russell said, he seized a fellow serviceman's weapon and vehicle with the intent of killing himself. "I wanted the pain to stop," he said. "I was crying and saying goodbye to my wife and my dogs." But as he drove through traffic looking for a place to do it, he found himself growing increasingly angry at Jones for supposedly wanting him to commit suicide.

He found himself driving back to the clinic. He parked in front and walked around to the back of the building, and through an open window he saw Army Maj. Matthew Houseal, the lead psychiatrist, whom he didn't know.

"He was facing the window, reading a piece of paper," Russell said.

"He didn't see you?" the judge asked.

"No, sir."

"And you took an aimed shot, and hit him in the head?"

"Yes, sir."

"Why did you do that?"

"I don't know, sir.… I just did it out of rage, sir."

Russell claimed he couldn't remember many of the killings. He did remember killing Yates, who had tried unsuccessfully to defend himself. "He was running away from me at the time I shot him, sir.… I chased after him and shot him," Russell said.

Prosecutors have scheduled a May 6 hearing to present evidence that the killings were premeditated — a step up from Russell's second-degree plea. Such a finding would carry a minimum sentence of life in prison.

The defense will present evidence that although Russell was sane enough to be held responsible for the crimes, he suffered from a substantial degree of mental impairment that couldn't have allowed him to plan them. The outcome could determine whether Russell is ever eligible for parole.

Thomas Springle, whose brother, Navy Cmdr. Keith Springle, was one of the five slain, said he was relieved that Russell pleaded guilty to the killings but frustrated that the Army had waited four years to bring the case to a court-martial.

"One of the benefits of how long this has drug out and how poorly the Army's handled it is we're to the point of having no expectations," he said. "I won't be shocked with any outcome."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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