An investigating officer has recommended that the Army drop most of its case against one of the five Stryker soldiers accused of murdering civilians in southern Afghanistan last year.
Spc. Michael Wagnon, 30, has maintained his innocence since he was confined at Joint Base Lewis-McChord amid accusations that he was part of a “kill team” in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division that murdered civilians for sport.
In a Dec. 10 report, Maj. Michael Liles found that the military doesn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Wagnon for the most serious charges the Army brought against him: murder, assault, possessing fragments of a human skull and trying to destroy evidence.
Liles recommended that Wagnon be prosecuted for a conspiracy charge related to a March patrol during which soldiers in his platoon opened fire on unarmed Afghans.
“I saw no testimony or evidence that supports that Spc. Wag-non was involved in conspiracy to commit premeditated murder of Afghan noncombatants,” wrote Liles, who read hundreds of pages of court documents and presided over a three-day pre-trial hearing in late November.
Wagnon still could face a court-martial over all of the charges. Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior Army officer at Lewis-McChord, has the final say about whether Wagnon should be prosecuted.
Wagnon’s attorney, Colby Vokey, was pleased with the recommendation.
“I think it should send a clear message to the general that there’s not enough evidence in Wagnon’s case to go forward. Based on this, he should dismiss all the charges,” Vokey said.
Wagnon, a father of three from Las Vegas, is one of 12 soldiers from his platoon who are accused of misconduct at Forward Operating Base Ramrod. The Army obtained its second conviction in the group Wednesday when Spc. Emmitt Quintal pleaded guilty to using drugs, possessing photos of Afghan casualties and assaulting a comrade.
Wagnon stood out from among several of his codefendants because he had two combat tours behind him; comrades from those deployments had gone public with their support for him.
But on his third tour, he faced gruesome charges of murdering a noncombatant and keeping war trophies.
The murder charge stemmed from a February killing that the Army contended was staged by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a squad leader in Wagnon’s platoon. Gibbs allegedly shot an Afghan on a patrol and planted an AK-47 on the body to make it appear as if the Afghan had fired first. Wagnon is accused of shooting at the Afghan to help Gibbs cover up the killing.
The Army built its murder case against Wagnon from sworn statements given by Spc. Jeremy Morlock, another soldier who allegedly shot at the Afghan. Morlock in one statement told investigators that Wagnon was aware that the killing was set up by Gibbs. In another statement, Morlock said he didn’t know if Wagnon was in on the plot.
Liles highlighted Morlock’s inconsistent statements in his report and cited testimony from witnesses who said Wagnon was not with Gibbs when the firing started.
“There is no indicator that Spc. Wagnon was doing anything other than coming to the aid of Staff Sgt. Gibbs, whom he assumed was being engaged by an enemy combatant,” Liles wrote.
During the pre-trial hearing, Vokey cast doubt on the allegation that Wagnon kept a human bone; the lawyer called witnesses who said Wagnon took the fragment from a camel that stepped on a bomb.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Lee told investigators in May that Wagnon once said the bone came from a corpse, but Lee backed away from that statement when he appeared before Liles. In court, Lee said Wagnon could have been joking about the bone’s origin.
Liles noted the discrepancies in his report and said the Army does not have physical evidence to show the bone came from a human.
Army spokeswoman Maj. Kathy Turner had no comment other than to stress that the investigator’s recommendations are not binding.
Wagnon’s family lives at Lewis-McChord and his wife, Carrie, attended each day of his hearings. She said in October that she was blindsided by her husband’s confinement because he had assured her he didn’t do anything wrong when she learned that criminal investigators were looking into his platoon.
Vokey said Carrie Wagnon was “cautiously optimistic” about Liles’ recommendation.
“She’s excited,” Vokey said. “This confirms what she’s known all along.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military