Karen Peterson

Peterson: Soldier on trial because reporter kept digging

People often ask where reporters get their story ideas.

Carl Prine, investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, learned of a story four years ago in a roundabout way. It turned into a blockbuster — and last week it led to a story in The News Tribune.

Rather than having a byline on the TNT story, however, Prine was a subject, a witness testifying at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord preliminary hearing of Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera. Barbera is accused of killing two unarmed boys during a reconnaissance mission in Iraq in 2007.

If not for Prine’s digging, Barbera would not have been sitting in a JBLM courtroom. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has the stories about it posted on its website at triblive.com/investigative/specialprojects/rulesofengagement.

They tell how Prine was working on another national story in 2010 about the care of wounded soldiers when he met Ken Katter. Katter had recently left the Army, and his wife had posted online comments about the quality of his care. Prine read them and drove to Michigan to interview Katter.

The fact that Prine was a former Marine, who also spent a year in Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard, gave Katter reason to trust him.

It was past midnight, after the reporter had stopped asking questions and turned off his tape recorder, when Katter opened up about something else. An incident in Iraq continued to haunt him. He told Prine that one of his fellow soldiers on patrol had killed two unarmed Iraqi boys who were out simply herding their cattle. It was later reported that the boys were deaf and mute.

Prine would spend almost two years getting to the bottom of Katter’s story. He learned that the Army had investigated the shootings, and that Barbera had falsely reported he shot insurgents that day, not children. Investigators recommended charges. Instead, commanders gave Barbera a reprimand and a promotion.

Driven to learn more, Prine criss-crossed the country to interview four other members of the Fort Bragg unit who witnessed the shootings.

He also tried to talk to Barbera and spoke last week in court about what happened next. TNT reporter Adam Ashton was there and shared his notes with me:

Prine contacted a Michael Barbera through Facebook on Oct. 3, 2011, and said he wanted to talk about the shootings.

“Wrong guy,” Barbera replied.

“No, you’re the right guy,” Prine wrote back.

Later that night, Prine’s wife answered a call to their home phone.

A man said her husband was working on a story about something that happened in Iraq in 2007.

“For your personal safety, I suggest you tell him to stop working on this story,” the man said, Deanna Prine said in court.

Prine didn’t stop working on the story. Next, with his wife’s blessing, he went to Diyala province in Iraq to interview the boys’ grief-stricken parents.

That trip, in December 2011, came after American forces had left the country. Prine flew into Kurdistan, rented a car, and together with a translator/cameraman drove 450 miles round-trip to the village of As Sadah. His editors monitored his movement using a GPS locator on his phone.

“We did a lot of soul-searching before he went,” Tribune-Review managing editor Jim Cuddy Jr., told me Friday, “for fear he might get injured.” Prine and his editors agreed he would take no more than an hour for his interviews and would return immediately to Kurdistan to avoid becoming a target.

Prine’s story ran a year later, in December 2012. Afterward, Prine reported, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the Army to reopen the investigation. In November 2013, Barbera was charged with two counts of murder and with attempting to obstruct the investigation.

His preliminary hearing could lead to a court-martial, where Barbera could face life in prison.

With Prine on the stand last week, Barbera’s defense attorney called Prine’s story a hit piece. He said he wanted to get video the paper took for the story, some of which showed Prine’s confidential Iraqi sources. Prine refused.

“Is it just the First Amendment issue?” the attorney asked, according to Ashton’s notes.

“That’s a pretty big issue,” Prine replied.

By week’s end, Prine was back at work in Pittsburgh. Barbera’s hearing continues this week.

Among the words Prine’s managing editor used to describe him were “intelligent,” “dogged” and “dedicated to his craft.”

“He’s quite a guy,” Cuddy said.

Prine took the smallest seed of a story and pressed it for years in pursuit of the truth. His work stands as a fine example of what it means to be a journalist.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434