A court-martial for Army Sgt. John M. Russell got underway May 6 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Russell is charged in the shooting deaths of five fellow servicemen during a shooting spree at Camp Liberty Combat Stress Center near Baghdad in May 2009. (Russell family photo/via AP)
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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WASH. — Shortly before beginning a shooting rampage through a mental health clinic in Iraq, an Army sergeant sat in a vehicle outside the building and smoked a cigarette, prosecutors said.
The government on Monday began laying out its case against Sgt. John Russell during the opening of his court-martial, arguing Russell was not overwhelmed by rage but instead plotted the shooting that killed five fellow service members. Prosecutors described interactions in which Russell had indicated his wish to leave the Army and how he grew angry at a doctor who told him he was mentally OK.
“This is not a case about rage,” said Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, an Army prosecutor. “This is a case about revenge.”
Russell has already pleaded guilty to the 2009 killings — describing himself as in a “rage” — but says he didn’t kill with premeditation. That’s something prosecutors are now trying to prove.
Stelle described how a witness had seen Russell smoking in an SUV outside the clinic before the shooting. After entering the building, Russell came across a group of soldiers in a classroom. Russell peered in the room, Stelle said, but showed restraint and continued down the hallway before beginning his killings.
Defense attorneys reserved their opening statements for later but were successful earlier in the day in their quest to introduce evidence that suggested Russell may have had brain abnormalities. Col. David Conn, the military judge overseeing the case, agreed to allow that evidence along with the perspectives of other experts who deemed Russell’s brain normal.
The first witness to testify Monday afternoon was retired Staff Sgt. Enos Richard, who had been tasked with escorting Russell to and from a stress clinic on the day of the shooting. When the two returned to the unit headquarters, Richard described how Russell took Richard’s gun from the back seat and demanded the keys.
“Give me the keys or I will shoot you,” Russell said, according to Richard’s testimony.
After getting the keys and getting in the vehicle, Russell sped away. It was about 30 minutes before the shooting began — about the time needed to drive to the stress center.
Prosecutors showed a video of the route all the way back to the stress clinic, often leaving the windowless courtroom in silence to view the slow, bumpy and congested roadways that Russell may have followed after taking the vehicle.
Killed in the shooting were Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, 52, of Wilmington, N.C., and four Army service members: Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.; Dr. Matthew Houseal, of Amarillo, Texas; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; and Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.
Russell, who is from Sherman, Texas, is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, about 40 miles south of Seattle.
His previous plea agreement means he will avoid a death sentence. His maximum sentence would be life in prison.
The shooting was one of the worst instances of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war and raised questions about the mental health problems for soldiers caused by repeated tours of duty.
A hearing on possible charges was held in August 2009 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Two evaluations presented during that hearing said Russell suffered from severe depression with psychotic features and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. A March 2011 evaluation said the major depression with psychotic features was in partial remission.
Russell was nearing the end of his third tour when his behavior changed, members of his unit testified in 2009. They said he became more distant in the days before the May 11, 2009, attack, and that he seemed paranoid that his unit was trying to end his career.
On May 8, Russell sought help at the combat stress clinic at Camp Stryker, where his unit was located. On May 10, Russell was referred to the Camp Liberty clinic, where he received counseling and prescription medication.
Witnesses have previously described seeing Russell the following day crying and talking about hurting himself. He went back to the Camp Liberty clinic, where a doctor told him he needed to get help or he would hurt himself. Richard testified Monday that Russell tried to surrender to military police to lock him up, but they let him go.