An Army paratrooper haunted by the deaths of two young Iraqi cattle herders he saw killed in March 2007 testified in a Joint Base Lewis-McChord courtroom Wednesday that the boys posed no threat to American soldiers – until his team leader’s gunshots drew attention to their hidden position.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera’s decision to shoot the unarmed boys exposed the eight-soldier team and forced them to flee their hideout, former paratrooper John Lotempio said at a pretrial hearing at the base that could lead to Barbera’s court-martial.
Lotempio still feels remorse for the boys’ deaths. He blames himself for pointing out the cattle herd to a sleeping Barbera as the livestock moved into a field the soldiers were watching.
“If I didn’t wake him up, they’d still be alive,” Lotempio said.
Barbera is in court at JBLM this week facing charges that he murdered the boys and sought to impede the Army’s investigation. He could face life in prison if the case moves forward.
Witnesses said the boys, later reported to be deaf and mute, did not appear to see the American soldiers until they were shot, meaning they did not threaten the hidden U.S. cavalry scouts.
“Everyone was literally covered in grass,” Lotempio said. “There was no seeing us, no way.”
This week’s proceedings represent the Army’s second attempt to investigate Barbera’s shooting near the village of As Sadah in Iraq’s Diyala’s Province. The first ended in 2011, when the Army declined to press criminal charges against him.
Barbera’s attorney argued the case should be dropped, just as it was after the Army’s first investigation. He stressed that none of the soldiers from the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., brought up concerns about an unjustified killing during their 2007 deployment.
The witnesses “weren’t credible and they won’t be credible,” said attorney David Coombs.
The Army filed charges against Barbera, 31, in November 2013, almost a year after Barbera’s fellow soldiers told The Tribune-Review newspaper of Pittsburgh that his shooting of the boys in the field was an unjustified killing.
Barbera allegedly threatened the wife of the reporter who broke the story. Carl Prine, the journalist, testified Wednesday that he matched the phone number from the call to Barbera.
Coombs sought to compel Prine to release unedited video interviews his newspaper recorded in the U.S. and in Iraq for the stories on the shootings. Prine and the newspaper refused, contending the recordings could compromise confidential sources.
Prine said he initially was drawn to the story as an example of how people can view the same incident in different ways, from soldiers who believed Barbera made the wrong choice to villagers who knew the young Iraqis.
Two witnesses the Army called Wednesday seemed to exemplify his point with conflicting memories, though both agreed the shooting did not appear justified.
Lotempio, for instance, remembered running behind a mud wall after Barbera shot the boys and coming under enemy fire from at least 12 shooters. He remembered bullets striking at his feet and a hasty retreat to a row of armored vehicles.
But Andrew Harriman, the medic on the mission, said the team never faced enemy fire that day.
Barbera was stationed in Alaska when the Army brought charges against him. He now is assigned to JBLM’s I Corps for the duration of the case. Because JBLM is the West Coast’s largest military base, high-profile criminal proceedings are often held here.
Coombs, Barbera’s lead defense attorney, recently represented Wikileaks leaker Pfc. Chelsea Manning.
The Army prosecution is led by Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, a JBLM-based attorney who helped convict a pair of notorious local Stryker Brigade soldiers: Kandahar massacre shooter Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and “kill team” ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.
Stelle also prosecuted Sgt. John Russell, who killed five U.S. military service members at a Baghdad mental health clinic in 2009. Like Barbera, Russell didn’t belong to a JBLM unit at the time of his crimes.
Bales, Gibbs and Russell are all serving life sentences
Adam Ashton 253.597.8646