Army officers had good reason to fear for the safety of their best witnesses when they opened a probe into suspected war crimes among a group of Stryker soldiers stationed in southern Afghanistan.
A private who led them to the unit had already been assaulted by seven comrades when he raised concerns about drug use in the platoon. Other witnesses said they were scared of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the charismatic squad leader who allegedly concocted schemes to kill Afghan civilians and threatened his fellow soldiers.
The solution was to house key witnesses in the same living quarters for their own safety while they were still in Afghanistan. That decision protected Spc. Jeremy Morlock, Cpl. Emmitt Quintal and Spc. Adam Winfield as the Army built its case that Gibbs and four others murdered noncombatants. Morlock and Winfield were among those charged with murder.
“We thought it was best that these guys at least had each other,” Army special agent Anderson Wagner, who led the investigation, testified at a pretrial hearing for Morlock in September.
The shared witness housing may have made sense in Afghanistan, but defense attorneys now contend that the soldiers used that time to work out their stories. The attorneys have been challenging the sworn statements the three key witnesses gave to Army investigators between May 11 and May 13 on the grounds that they’re filled with hearsay.
Justin Stoner, the private who was assaulted by his platoon mates in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, joined the group of key witnesses in shared living quarters in late May. Quintal and Morlock were among the soldiers who Stoner said beat him up.
He testified Dec. 2 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that Morlock, Quintal and Winfield talked among themselves from time to time about what they had told investigators.
“Ideas had been thrown back and forth between them,” Stoner said when an Army defense attorney asked him if he and the other soldiers talked about pinning the charges on one of their platoon mates.
It wasn’t the only time that soldiers in the investigation communicated with each other about the case. Documents obtained by The News Tribune show that Morlock sent notes to some of his codefendants, apologizing for talking with investigators.
He sent one to Gibbs while both were in confinement at Lewis-McChord that read, “So bro, I know I (expletive) up. I know I (expletive) you, my guy, your guy and myself by making that statement. I sit and kill myself thinking about it all the time.”
All five soldiers who were accused of murder were housed at Lewis-McChord after returning to the states in June. Since then, Gibbs has spent time at a civilian jail in the City of Buckley and is now in confinement at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. The others remain in a jail at Lewis-McChord, where they can communicate with one another but have been instructed not to talk about the case.
Stoner’s appearances in court this month were the first time any of the Army’s primary cooperative witnesses had taken the stand. Previously, the 21-year-old whistleblower had refused to testify until he reached an immunity deal with prosecutors.
The other three key witnesses have invoked the 5th Amendment while they seek plea deals to limit their exposure.
Over the past few weeks, defense attorneys have criticized investigators including Wagner for housing the witnesses together.
“Any time you have a bunch of key witnesses thrown into a room together, all kinds of bad things can happen,” said Colby Vokey, a defense attorney representing one of the soldiers facing a murder charge.
“It’s kind of disconcerting because it seems to be they’re feeding off each other and trying to tell one consistent story. That’s an indicator that you have to take those statements with a grain of salt because all of those statements are now polluted,” Vokey said.
Special agent Ismael Camero, who assisted Wagner in the investigation, acknowledged at a recent Article 32 hearing that housing the witnesses together wasn’t ideal. He said it had to be done because it was difficult to find separate quarters for the soldiers in Afghanistan.
“It’s really hard to find space in a deployed environment where there’s limited housing,” he said at a hearing for Vokey’s client, Spc. Michael Wagnon.
Vokey said one result of the witnesses’ shared quarters is that they gave investigators sworn statements that seem to corroborate one another even though the soldiers didn’t necessarily see the incidents they described.
Winfield, for example, described offenses that he heard about but didn’t witness, such as Wagnon trying to break into his housing unit to destroy evidence. Vokey says that never happened.
Winfield also detailed a January killing that led to murder charges against Gibbs, Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes. Winfield didn’t witness the incident but heard a discussion among the soldiers about a scenario to kill an Afghan about a week before the killing.
Quintal told Army investigators that he learned of some of the most serious incidents in the war crimes investigation through Morlock.
Morlock, on the other hand, had a direct role in nearly all of the incidents that make up the Army’s case against him and his platoon mates. He allegedly participated in three staged killings between January and May, smoked hashish with his platoon mates and assaulted Stoner.
When Morlock spoke with investigators in May, he confessed his role in all of those crimes and named his collaborators. His admission of guilt made him appear trustworthy to investigators.
“It didn’t seem like he was hiding anything from us,” Camero said at Wagnon’s hearing.
But Morlock had a poor reputation in his platoon and his admitted drug use coupled with possible traumatic brain injuries could make him a weak witness if called to trial, Vokey and other defense attorneys have said. That means prosecutors would want to have other soldiers testify to back up Morlock’s accounts.
Sworn statements from Morlock, Quintal and Winfield convey a strong sense of guilt. Each appears to think of himself as a whistleblower assisting the Army’s case against Gibbs.
Winfield tried to raise concerns about Gibbs as early as February, when he told his father about suspicious civilian killings. His father was turned away when he tried to relay those allegations to the Army.
Winfield told Army investigators that a May killing in which he was involved with Gibbs and Morlock was “pretty much the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t know if it was my bullets that killed him or the grenade that killed him, but I was still a part of it.”
Stoner didn’t like Morlock, but noticed a change when they were housed together during the investigation.
“Both Morlock and Quintal kind of apologized” for assaulting him, Stoner testified earlier this month. “Morlock got completely changed from the last time I saw him. He seemed more remorseful.
“I think he knew he got caught and he was just trying to be nice,” Stoner said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org