Sgt. Dominic Morales still hears an “evil chuckle” in his nightmares.
He remembers it as the frightening laugh of Sgt. John Russell just before he shot an unarmed soldier in the face inside a Baghdad combat stress clinic four years ago.
The victim “didn’t have a weapon. He was just a sitting duck,” Morales testified Tuesday at Russell’s court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Russell, 48, has already pleaded guilty to killing a Navy commander and four soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic on May 11, 2009. He’s on trial facing a life sentence as he fights the Army’s accusation that he killed the men with premeditation.
Morales, then a behavioral health technician working as a clerk at the clinic, was the only person to draw Russell’s fire and survive the rampage. Others managed to jump out of windows to safety before Russell saw them.
In a softspoken voice, Morales provided chilling testimony describing how he and others attempted to hide from the gunman in a building where none of them were allowed to carry weapons.
As Russell moved through the clinic shooting anyone he saw, the sound of gunfire “started echoing,” Morales said. “It felt like it was right on top of you.”
Morales was familiar with Russell because of Russell’s previous visits to the stress clinic. On the day of the killings, Morales admitted Russell for an appointment with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones. Morales saw Russell leave that meeting apparently unsatisfied, and called military police when Jones asked for them. Morales did not hear any threats about violence as the meeting came to an end.
About an hour later, Morales was sitting in a room with two soldiers who were also admitted to the clinic, plus one of their escorts. They were Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates.
They heard a shot from the back of the building but thought it might have been a door slamming. Then they heard several more gunshots.
Yates grabbed a weapon in the lobby and prayed it had a live round. Morales saw him run in the direction of the gunfire and then turn back.
He heard more shots, then Yates went silent.
Bueno-Galdos hid in a cabinet. Morales and Barton crouched under a desk.
The gunman entered their room. Under the desk, Morales could see only that the gunman had Army-issued boots.
He whispered to Barton “It’s one of our people.”
The shooter left but returned and shot Bueno-Galdos in the side. Morales said Russell chuckled, then shot Bueno-Galdos once more in the head.
Barton could not hide himself completely under the desk. Russell shot him in the head and then left the room again.
Morales knew he couldn’t stay in the room. He counted to “three Mississippi” and then said “let’s go” to the two soldiers in the room, though he knew they were already dead.
“In my mind, I felt like if I had somebody with me, it would feel better,” he said.
Morales heaved Barton’s body off of him and made a break for the hallway exit. Russell spotted him and shot twice, missing.
On his way out, Morales encountered Russell’s second victim, Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle. Morales leaped over the body and continued sprinting, his own uniform stained by Barton’s blood.
Morales’ testimony brought tears from several of the dozen relatives of Russell’s victims who are attending the court-martial. One left the room.
Russell didn’t train or serve at Lewis-McChord, but his court-martial is being held there because his Germany-based combat engineer company was attached to a Lewis-McChord unit while in Iraq.
In court, Russell’s defense attorney persistently asked witnesses whether they remembered Russell as suicidal on the day of the killings, or if Russell expressed a wish to harm others. So far, they’ve been saying Russell wanted to kill himself.
Prosecutors have been countering by asking witnesses if they’re still suffering psychological wounds from the attack.
Prosecutor Maj. Daniel Mazzone asked Morales if he considered the killings traumatic. Morales replied that he did.
Mazzone asked Morales how long he was traumatized.
“I still am,” he said.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military