“It does bother me,” said Kaye Mayo, the mother of Brad Merten. “It’s disturbing. If the situation was reversed ... if Brad had stabbed an Army Ranger, causing critical injuries, and was up on assault one with a deadly weapon charge ... he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country.”
Mayo added, “One would expect the Army to lead by example.”
Merten called the military’s decision to let the accused soldiers deploy “a slap in the face.”
The accused soldiers, Alfred Joseph Sanchez, 20, and John Melville, 22, are members of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Sanchez is charged with first-degree assault while armed with a deadly weapon and first-degree burglary in connection with Merten’s stabbing outside Charlie’s Bar & Grill on Fourth Avenue in the early morning March 28. Melville is charged with first-degree burglary.
During a court hearing in Olympia last week, Thurston County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim did not oppose a continuance to Sanchez’s and Melville’s trial dates, court papers state. During the hearing, the defendants’ sergeant said that because “these were specialty squads it was crucial to have them deploy with their unit,” court papers state.
Tunheim said Monday that the reason he didn’t oppose the continuance has nothing to do with allowing or not allowing Sanchez and Melville to deploy. Rather, Tunheim said, he agreed to the continuance because other witnesses also are in the military – some are members of Sanchez’s Ranger regiment and others serve in other service branches – and they are unavailable because they are overseas. The defendants’ trial is continued until the first week of May.
Had the trial not been continued despite the lack of availability of some witnesses, the defense attorneys could have argued for any convictions to be overturned on appeal, Tunheim said.
Tunheim had said he would not agree to the continuance unless the military could assure him the defendants would be back in Washington for court appearances in April.
An Army Ranger spokeswoman in Fort Benning, Ga., said she could not give details about whether Sanchez and Melville have deployed or where they are deploying, because the deployment schedule of special operations units is classified.
The spokeswoman, Tracy Bailey, the public affairs officer for the 75th Ranger Regiment, did not address Mayo’s concerns about an Army unit allowing soldiers with pending felony charges to serve overseas.
In an e-mail, Bailey wrote, “It is the 75th Ranger Regiment’s understanding the presiding judge granted a continuance in this case upon the request of the defense attorney and without objection by the prosecutor. The battalion has cooperated fully with the judicial process and will continue to do so, including any and all required attendance at any judicial proceeding.”
Sanchez’s attorney, Sandra Jonston, and Melville’s attorney, Anna Woods, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Sanchez is accused of stabbing Merten in the back “with a large knife” outside Charlie’s on March 28, court papers state. The stabbing occurred after Sanchez and Melville were thrown out of the bar, then returned by breaking down the back door of the establishment, court papers state.
Sanchez is accused of stealing a knife from Charlie’s kitchen, according to court papers. The alleged attack occurred outside the bar.
“Merten told police that at first he thought he had been punched in the back from behind and did not realize at that time he had been stabbed,” court papers state. “He turned around and saw the man later identified as Sanchez running away carrying something silver.”
Video surveillance footage from Charlie’s showed that a man fitting Merten’s description of Sanchez broke down the rear door of the bar and grabbed what appeared to be a knife, court papers state.
Merten suffered a punctured lung, a broken rib and a damaged liver, and “a chest tube needed to be inserted,” court papers state. Mayo said the gash in her son’s back was almost 6 inches long.
“That wound was a kill shot,” she said.
Mayo said her son was in the hospital for five days, and she had to take two weeks off of work to care for him. She said he has recovered. Mayo added that she comes from a law enforcement family and respects the military, but she doesn’t know why a group like the Rangers would allow soldiers facing felony charges to deploy.
“What are we doing sending a guy who’s up on charges like that?” she said. “If Brad would have died, this would have been a homicide.”
Merten said the military allowing Sanchez and Melville to deploy is unfair.
“If I had those same charges pending as him, I’d probably still be in jail,” he said.
Merten works at Pints & Quarts pub at the mall on the west side. He said he could not work for a month and a half after he was stabbed.
Mayo said Sanchez and Melville serving with their Ranger regiment overseas raises a number of issues. One, the defendants are not supposed to discuss their pending case with each other or other witnesses, but there is no means to prevent such communication while they serve, she said. Also, Mayo raised the issue of whether someone charged with a violent offense poses a danger to other soldiers.
“Who’s to say he’s not fit to be running around with the unit?” she said of Sanchez. “I wouldn’t want my son working alongside him in Iraq. Are they putting other soldiers at risk?”
Of the prosecutor’s decision not to oppose a trial continuance so the soldiers could deploy, Mayo said, “We weren’t contacted. We were not considered. From what I can tell, we were not considered.”
Tunheim said he was surprised to hear of Mayo’s concerns and added that because of the issues involved with the witnesses who are overseas, there likely was no option other than allowing the continuance.
Tunheim added that he is willing to sit down with Mayo and explain the reasons for the continuance.
Sanchez and Melville were released and confined to base at Fort Lewis after posting bail this year. Defendants in all types of criminal cases sometimes are allowed to work after posting bail as a condition of their release. Typically, judges must balance potential public-safety concerns raised by a defendant’s release with the fact that someone charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The motion allowing a continuance for Sanchez and Melville’s trials was granted by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465