Military News

Jailhouse tapes: Bales family struggled with infamy of his massacre

In jailhouse conversations, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales urged his wife to prepare for a future without him even as he denied that he’d committed the massacre that would send him to prison for life.

“I know I did not do this,” Bales told his wife, Kari, in November 2012 as he readied for a pretrial hearing. “I know it did not go down like they said it did.”

Their conversations, recorded by military police in the year leading up to his trial, reveal a couple struggling to cope with the infamy of Bales’ March 2012 slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians.

The News Tribune obtained summaries of their talks through the Freedom of Information Act as part of a larger Army criminal investigation. They were recorded at facilities in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales was stationed for several years.

In their conversations, the soldier most often appeared resigned to his fate while his wife brought him news about homelife and efforts to raise money for his defense.

He told her he was in a “very bad place and probably not coming home” in one of their first conversations following his arrest. In another, he told her he believed Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary at the time, wanted him dead.

Go to college, he told her. Make an “exit plan,” he said again and again.

Occasionally, he appeared to hold out hope that he’d walk free one day. He banked on his legal team making his trial about “his past” rather than “the events of that night.” He also talked about criminals who were set free after spending decades in jail.

Instead, Bales last year pleaded guilty to the 16 homicides and five more counts of attempted murder for the people he wounded. His team fought to give him a chance at parole, but an Army jury rejected his appeal for mercy.

Robert and Kari Bales have two young children. They made their home in Lake Tapps during Bales’ 10-year tenure with JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

The notes show that Kari Bales defended her husband immediately after his arrest. She refused to cooperate with Army investigators more than she had to because she considered her husband to be her “best friend.”

She told police just after the killings that she “felt like she was living in a dream and everything was surreal.”

For her part, Kari sought to soften the public’s understanding of her husband by speaking with national broadcast news stations. She also used those appearances to raise money for Bales’ legal team.

Some of their conversations were used by attorneys at his sentencing. In one, Kari asked her husband to explain why the Army initially charged him with 17 counts of murder before settling on as 16 as the number of his victims.

Their conversation turned morbid. They laughed at one point and joked about going down in history.

Prosecutors presented the tape as evidence of Bales’ callousness, but it was not a clean message because it also included loving conversations between him and his children.

Several summaries show that the couple sought to protect their kids from the soldier’s notoriety. At one point, they discussed changing the last names of their children to give them a fresh start.

Kari Bales declined to be interviewed for this story. She attended all of his court hearings and has maintained a relationship with him.

At his sentencing last August, Bales sobbed as he apologized to his family.

“My wife, family, mom, kids, I’m sorry I disgraced you. I’m sorry I let you down,” he said.

Prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse contrasted Bales’ emotional appeal by giving descriptions of the soldier’s victims. Seventeen of the 21 people he killed or wounded in the morning hours of March 11, 2012 were women or children.

“Sgt. Bales dares to ask you to think of his children when he clearly did not,” Morse said.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune