A string of questionable killings and tales of a macabre contest
By Babak Dehghanpisheh
It was supposed to be a routine search. Hunting for gunmen and weapons in Baghdad's Sadr City, a squad of GIs raided a house, slapped a set of plastic cuffs on the lone occupant and left him outside. But the squad found only a single AK-47, allowed for self-defense under U.S. military rules. Spc. Allen Crandall partially disabled the weapon, then cut the Iraqi's cuffs and led him inside with Sgt. Michael Williams. Crandall set the AK-47 on a table by the door and turned to leave. As he did, he says he heard Williams saying, "I feel threatened." Then two shots from Williams's M-16. Testifying on the Aug. 28 incident last week in Iraq, Crandall told an Army panel: "[Williams] said the Iraqi went for his weapon."
Something went monstrously wrong in "the 1-41"—the U.S. Army's First Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment. Out of 500 or so battalion members, Williams is one of six now facing murder charges in five separate shooting incidents since August. Two of the victims were also 1-41 troops, gunned down at a Kansas farmhouse in September. In a courtroom last week at Camp Victory, outside Baghdad, 1-41 members described a dysfunctional unit with too much bloodlust and not enough accountability. Witnesses said the battalion's Charlie Company held a macabre contest to see who would get the first confirmed kill of the unit's second Iraq tour.
Three 1-41 members gave their lives on the battalion's first tour, last year. After a few months' rest in Fort Riley, Kans., the battalion began a new tour this summer. Things soon went bad. On Aug. 18, Company C was hunting insurgents in Sadr City. Williams's squad stopped a dump truck, and an Iraqi climbed out. "Light him up!" the sergeant ordered, according to testimony, and the squad opened fire, killing the unarmed man. Williams and a squadmate reportedly got into an argument over which of them had scored Company C's first kill.
Staff Sgt. Johnny Horne pleaded guilty last week to killing a wounded 16-year-old Iraqi the same day. He insisted it was a mercy killing. A squadmate, Staff Sgt. Cardenas Alban, is awaiting trial for murder in the same incident. Ten days later, during the Aug. 28 search, Williams and Spc. Brent May led another unarmed Iraqi back into his house, where they allegedly left him dead. "May asked if he could shoot this one," testified their squadmate Spc. Tulafono Young. "Specialist May was sort of bragging ... that he had shot the guy in the head."
Then came the deaths in Kansas. Aaron Stanley and Eric Colvin stayed behind when 1-41 returned to Iraq in July. The two sergeants were facing a list of drug charges, including distribution of amphetamines, use of amphetamines and possession of marijuana with intent to sell. On the night of Sept. 13, they were at Stanley's rented farmhouse near Clay Center, 30 miles from Fort Riley, when Staff Sgt. Matthew Werner and Spc. Christopher Hymer drove up—and were fatally shot. Police arrived after Stanley called 911 to say he had shot two men trying to break in. Nevertheless, on Oct. 16 the Army filed charges of premeditated murder against Stanley and Colvin. So far the Army has kept a tight lid on its 1-41 investigations. But the slowly emerging details keep getting uglier.