An Army sergeant accused of killing five U.S. service members in the deadliest act of fratricide in the Iraq War is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and faces murder charges there – even though he was never stationed there.
Army officials said Friday that Sgt. John Russell has been referred to a general court-martial at the base south of Tacoma and is being held in pretrial confinement there. He’s been detained at the base since January.
Russell, 47, did not train at Lewis-McChord and had never passed through the base, officials said, but his unit was attached to Lewis-McChord’s 555th Engineer Brigade on the ground in Iraq.
Russell is accused of opening fire at the combat stress center at Camp Liberty near Baghdad in May 2009. Four of the victims were fellow soldiers, and the fifth was a Navy officer. None was based at Lewis-McChord.
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The charges referred against him this week include five specifications of murder, one specification of aggravated assault and one specification of attempted murder. No trial date has been set.
If convicted on all charges, Russell could face the death penalty.
A military investigator last year recommended that Russell should not face death because he suffered from serious mental illness, but that decision is ultimately left to court-martial authorities.
Russell deployed to Iraq with the 370th Engineer Company, 54th Engineer Battalion from Bamberg, Germany. Once in theater, the 54th was assigned to the engineer unit from Lewis-McChord.
Army records show he enlisted in his hometown of Sherman, Texas, and trained as a systems support signal specialist. His first deployment was in 1996 to Serbia; he later deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was on his third combat tour to Iraq at the time of the quintuple homicide, records show.
Lewis-McChord has recently become a hub of sensational war-crime cases. In the last two years, 12 Stryker soldiers were prosecuted on a variety of charges – including five alleged members of a “kill team” accused of slaying three Afghan noncombatants. Another Stryker soldier faces charges in the March massacre of 17 Afghan villagers.
But a Lewis-McChord spokesman was quick Friday to address any misunderstandings about Russell’s ties to the local base.
“Sgt. John Russell should not be referred to as a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier,” spokesman Joe Piek said in a statement. “His court-martial will be conducted at Joint Base Lewis-McChord because the chain of command under which he temporarily served in Iraq is assigned here.”