Killer-turned-Army witness, alleged leader reunite in court

A Stryker sergeant who allegedly schemed to murder Afghan civilians last year found a receptive audience among his platoon mates because they already had discussed planting evidence, according to witness testimony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Thursday.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who allegedly first raised the idea of murdering Afghans in combat-like scenarios, is back in court for a pretrial hearing slated to last two days.

The most highly anticipated purpose for the court date was to hear testimony from Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, Gibbs’ alleged right-hand man-turned-key government witness. Morlock has pleaded guilty to murdering three noncombatants.

The hearing was the first time they’ve been in court at the same time since they were arrested on the murder charges a year ago.

Morlock said Thursday that planting weapons had been discussed before among members of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to justify battlefield decisions.

“It wasn’t so far-fetched,” he said. “The idea of drop weapons had always been around. It was a different spin that these weren’t drop weapons to cover your ass. These were drop weapons to kill someone.”

Gibbs, 26, of Billings, Mont., is accused of murdering three Afghans, keeping body parts as war souvenirs and assaulting the private who blew the whistle on misconduct in their platoon. He’ll likely face a court-martial in early October in which he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Twelve soldiers in his platoon came home facing courts-martial for various misconduct charges. Three others in addition to Gibbs and Morlock allegedly had a hand in the murders.

Other defendants portray Gibbs as a “Mansonesque” figure who persuaded soldiers to join him in war crimes. He maintains he’s innocent and contends the killings took place in legitimate combat.

Morlock was reluctant to make eye contact with Gibbs in court. He blinked frequently and appeared uncomfortable for the first part of what became four hours of testimony.

Morlock’s conflicted relationship with the squad leader was shown in a letter he wrote to Gibbs last year while both were in confinement at Lewis-McChord.

“So bro, I know I (expletive) up. I know I (expletive) you, my guy, your guy and myself by making that statement,” Morlock wrote in the letter, obtained by The News Tribune. “I sit and kill myself thinking about it all the time.”

Morlock in March was sentenced to 24 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to his role in the three murders and agreed to testify against his codefendants. He’s been in court frequently since then, testifying at courts-martial and pretrial hearings for his platoon mates.

He has serious credibility challenges stemming largely from his admitted drug use during his deployment. On Thursday, he said he smoked hashish daily at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in southern Afghanistan, and he continued using the drug after he was detained on suspicion of murder in May 2010.

Yet Morlock also painted a damning picture of Gibbs boasting about getting away with a questionable shooting in Iraq and looking for opportunities to implement similar schemes in Afghanistan.

In one case, Morlock described Gibbs as methodically murdering a civilian in February 2010.

Morlock said he helped Gibbs pack an Afghan AK-47 before a patrol that day and kept watch as Gibbs went into a compound and selected a victim.

He said the victim naively complied with Gibbs’ directions as Gibbs placed him, retrieved the AK-47 from his assault pack, fired two rounds at a mud wall, kicked away the AK-47 and then shot the Afghan with his own M4 rifle.

Morlock said they told other soldiers in the platoon at the time that the Afghan shot first, which appeared truthful to their fellow soldiers because the Afghan weapon lay near the victim.

Gibbs’ pretrial hearing is expected to continue today.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military