SEATTLE — Last December, Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs began joking with other soldiers about how easy it would be to "toss a grenade" at Afghan civilians and kill them, according to statements made by fellow platoon members to military investigators.
One soldier said it was a stupid idea. Another believed that Gibbs was "feeling out the platoon."
Others told investigators Gibbs eventually turned the talk into action, forming what one called a "kill team" to carry out random executions of Afghans.
In one of the most serious war-crimes cases to emerge from the Afghanistan war, five soldiers from a Stryker infantry brigade based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord are now charged with murder in connection with the killings of three Afghan civilians.
In two of the incidents, grenades were thrown at the victims and they were shot, according to charging documents. The third victim also was shot.
The soldiers allegedly killed the three Afghans while out on patrol, and anyone who dared to report the events was threatened with violence, according to statements made to investigators.
All five soldiers are awaiting court-martial proceedings. If convicted, they face the possibility of life imprisonment or death.
Hearings are expected to start later this year. Their families all have retained civilian attorneys to aid in the defense.
The alleged murder plot came to the attention of the Army in May, according to court documents.
Army officials were initially investigating a brutal assault on an enlisted man who had informed on soldiers smoking hashish. The informant told investigators he had heard other soldiers talk about civilian killings.
Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock are the central figures in the case. They are charged in all three killings.
Gibbs, 25, has denied any involvement. Morlock, a 22-year-old from Wasilla, Alaska, has played a major role in helping the Army develop the case. He has given numerous details about his involvement in the killings and also implicated others. His attorney, Michael Waddington, said he will try to have those statements withdrawn because his client spoke while under the influence of prescription drugs taken for battlefield injuries.
In interviews with Army criminal investigators, several soldiers portrayed Gibbs as a ringleader.
Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., is a veteran of two previous war-zone tours — one in Afghanistan and a second in Iraq. In the fall, he joined the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, replacing a squad leader who had been injured by an explosion.
He allegedly boasted about "stuff" he had gotten away with in Iraq and discussed plans for killing Afghans with a small circle of soldiers, according to statements by other soldiers.
The first murder allegedly occurred during a patrol in the Afghan village of La Mohammed Kalay on Jan. 15.
While some soldiers spoke with village elders, Morlock was assigned to security duty at the edge of a poppy field along with Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of the youngest and least experienced soldiers in the platoon.
Morlock, in his statement cited in court documents, said an Afghan civilian named Gul Mudin emerged from the field and stopped behind a low wall separating him from the soldiers. Morlock then tossed a grenade given to him by Gibbs over a wall to kill the man, according to Morlock's statement.
In his statement, Holmes said he was then ordered to fire over the wall. He was unsure whether he hit anyone.
Holmes said Morlock threatened his life if he told anyone.
Holmes, who is from Boise, Idaho, is charged along with Morlock and Gibbs in that killing.
Army prosecutors allege that Spc. Michael Wagnon of Las Vegas was involved with Morlock and Gibbs in the murder of the second Afghan, Marach Agah, in February.
Morlock says Gibbs shot Agah and then placed an AK-47 by the corpse to make it appear to have been an act of self-defense, according to an attorney who has examined his statement.
In the third killing, Morlock and Gibbs are accused of throwing a grenade at an Afghan named Mullah Adahdad and then shooting him. Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., also is charged in that killing.
Credibility an issue
Morlock's credibility is expected to be a big issue as the government moves forward to prosecute the soldiers.
Waddington, Morlock's attorney, said his client's statements were made under the influence of drugs. Morlock had a brutal year in Afghanistan, where he was exposed to four separate explosions that caused traumatic brain injury, the attorney said.
To help him remain in Afghanistan, he was prescribed a cornucopia of legal prescription drugs that included anti-depressants, muscle relaxers and a sleep drug frequently used by soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Waddington said.
"Our position is that his statements were incoherent, and taken while he was under a cocktail of drugs that shouldn't have been mixed," Waddington said. "What he said is not consistent with other evidence that comes out of the case."