CAMP PENDLETON, California (AP) – U.S. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich has admitted shooting a group of Iraqi men by a car in Haditha, but the circumstances under which he did so remain in dispute.
Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Connecticut, claims the killings were justified because he had identified the men as military-age males close to where a roadside bomb had just detonated, killing a Humvee driver in his squad. He said they tried to run from the car, instead of obeying an order not to.
But one of Wuterich’s squad mates, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, has told a different story. At a hearing in May, Dela Cruz testified that Wuterich shot the men while they had their hands in the air. “They were just standing, looking around, had hands up,” Dela Cruz said. “Then I saw one of them drop in the middle. I didn’t know what was going on, sir. Looked to my left, saw Staff Sgt. Wuterich shooting.”
The two accounts were expected to play out in a military courtroom Friday, where Dela Cruz was scheduled to take the stand at a preliminary hearing for Wuterich.
One of Wuterich’s military defense attorneys, Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, said Dela Cruz’s account was incorrect, and that the Marine had changed his story several times during the investigation. “He has given many statements and given many different versions. Dela Cruz is all over the map,” Vokey said. Wuterich was charged with murdering 18 Iraqis in a bloody combat operation that left 24 Iraqi civilians dead, but at the outset of his hearing Thursday, prosecutors withdrew one murder count.
Dela Cruz also was charged with murder, but prosecutors dismissed his charges and gave him immunity to testify against Wuterich.
The case centers on whether Wuterich, who had never experienced combat before, acted within Marine rules of engagement when he shot the men by the car, then led his squad in a string of house raids.
Wuterich asserts that he was following combat rules and that he attacked the houses because he thought gunfire was coming from them.
The first witness to testify in Wuterich’s hearing was Lance Cpl. Humberto Mendoza, who also has been granted immunity to testify.
Mendoza testified that he had shot an unarmed Iraqi man who opened the front door to the home, and that he shot a different man in another house who he thought was reaching for a weapon. Mendoza said the killings were within combat rules because the occupants of the homes had been declared hostile.
“I think he’s a great Marine, sir,” Mendoza said when asked by military defense attorney Maj. Haytham Faraj what he thought of Wuterich.
Mendoza testified that he saw Wuterich open fire by the scene of the bomb blast before the house clearing began. Aerial footage from an unmanned drone sent into the skies above Haditha in the minutes after the bomb blast shows several bodies clustered close to a white car. The tape obtained Thursday by The Associated Press also shows Marines engaged in several other gun fights in the city that day.
The Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury probe, but the defense gets to cross-examine government witnesses. At the end of the hearing, investigating officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware will make a recommendation about whether Wuterich should stand trial. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who is overseeing the case, makes the final decision.
Ware has already presided over two separate hearings in the case, when he listened to evidence against two of Wuterich’s lance corporals, Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt, who were charged with murder. In both cases, Ware found prosecutors could not prove the Marines operated outside combat rules and recommended the charges be dismissed.
Wuterich is also charged with making a false official statement and telling another Marine to do the same. He faces a possible life sentence and dishonorable discharge if court-martialed.