Difficult days preceded Iraq killings, witnesses testify

Staff writerMay 9, 2013 

russell: Faces life sentence

Sgt. John Russell had two meetings with the same psychiatrist before he killed five fellow military service members at a Baghdad combat stress clinic four years ago.

He left the first meeting with a prescription for an antidepressant and an attitude that suggested he’d stick to his treatment, the doctor remembered Wednesday.

Their second encounter the next day ended with a verbal outburst that revealed how unsteady Russell was at the end of his third Iraq deployment. He threatened to kill himself and blamed doctors for pushing him to that point.

“It’s all your fault, you made your decision,” psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones remembered Russell shouting. “I said, ‘No, you made your decision, Sgt. Russell.’”

Russell, 48, is facing a life sentence at a court-martial this week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for murdering five men about an hour after his second meeting with Jones in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty on May 11, 2009. Russell has already pleaded guilty to killing them, but he’s fighting charges that the murders were premeditated.

His lawyers have said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression. They contend Russell received poor treatment from doctors who minimized the soldier’s signs of distress.

Defense attorney James Culp hit that theme Wednesday when he cross-examined Jones. He pointed to the moment when Russell stormed out of their second meeting, apparently fuming about the doctor. Jones was the third behavioral health specialist Russell had seen over a four-day period.

Jones chased Russell and shouted at him, using a voice meant to show his authority. By then, Jones already knew Russell’s unit had placed him on a suicide watch.

“At what point in time, sir, did you treat him with kindness or compassion,” Culp asked Jones.

“I was firm with him,” Jones replied. “I was trying to manage the situation, and at that point the nice approach wasn’t working. He wasn’t responding to that.”

Russell was escorted back to his headquarters, took a weapon from his guard and returned to the stress clinic, where he opened fire on unarmed comrades. Jones slipped out a window after hearing shots.

Soldiers from Russell’s unit also testified Wednesday, characterizing him as increasingly paranoid in the weeks before the attack.

His belief that his unit was trying to kick him out of the Army was one reason his commander, Capt. Mark Natale, referred him to counseling instead of disciplining him for an insubordinate, expletive-laden outburst in early May 2009.

“If he’s having the issues he says he’s having, then he needs to seek medical attention ASAP,” Natale remembered thinking.

Russell’s attitude degraded further when he learned a female soldier was pursuing a complaint against him for a sexual remark he allegedly made in her presence. Russell had tried to discipline that soldier for tardiness, and he grew convinced Natale and other leaders were siding with her.

Both Natale and Jones depicted Russell as a lazy, unmotivated soldier who resisted help from his leaders and from behavioral health specialists.

“He didn’t want to do anything that would keep him in theater longer,” such as counseling, Jones said. Jones thought Russell’s outbursts were the result of his “not getting his way” in the Army.

Natale didn’t think Russell would harm others. In the worst case, he thought, Russell would kill himself. “If I would’ve known what I know now, I probably would have zip-tied his (butt) to the bench,” Natale testified Wednesday.

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