1:10 p.m. update:
Sgt. John Russell returned to a Baghdad combat stress clinic “in a rage,” seeking out the doctor who he believed had encouraged him to commit suicide that day.
He didn’t see the doctor, but he attacked the clinic nonetheless.
Russell, 48, today admitted that he shot five fellow military service members to death at a combat stress clinic at CampLiberty in Baghdad on May 11, 2009.
“I wanted the pain to stop,” he testified in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Russell of Sherman, Texas struck a plea agreement with the Army that capped his maximum punishment at a life sentence instead of a death penalty. He testified today to convince an Army judge Col. David Conn to accept the agreement. Conn did so after several hours of questioning.
The case is not over, however. Russell refused to plead guilty to murdering his victims with premeditation. Prosecutors want to contest that point. The court is scheduled to reconvene on May 6.
Russell today described moving through the clinic, murdering Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr.
Of the five, Russell was familiar only with Springle. The Navy officer had tried to help Russell a couple days before the attack, but Russell misinterpreted Springle’s attempts to use humor in talking with the troubled soldier.
Russell spoke in a husky, almost dispassionate voice. He read a written statement detailing his memories of the killings.
His even tone contrasted with the families of his victims. Yates’ mother, Shawna Van Blargan, joined Springle’s wife and son in court. They held each other tightly as Russell talked about killing their loved ones.
Russell remembered that Yates raised a gun at him after Russell had already killed Houseal and Springle. Yates dropped the weapon and ran away.
Yates “ran and I ran after him and I shot him,” Russell said.
Van Blargan cried out when Russell described killing her son. She left the court room.
Russell further remembered finding Barton hiding under a table. Russell shot him in the head.
Bueno-Galdos tried to grab Russell’s rifle. Russell shot him in the chest, and then shot him once more while he lay face down on the ground.
Russell was on his third combat deployment that spring. He had worked mostly by himself at a desk job for the previous 11 months, secluding himself from others who might have noticed him unraveling.
His assignment changed in early May, compelling him to work with more soldiers. He tried to discipline one of them. He said she responded by threatening to file an equal opportunity complaint against him.
Russell recognizes now that he was suffering from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost control of his emotions and in the following days began swearing at officers. He told a chaplain he wanted to kill himself.
He first visited a combat stress clinic at Camp Stryker in Baghdad. A major treated him rudely, ignoring his distress and telling him he had an anger management problem.
A lower ranking officer recognized Russell was mistreated, and steered him to the clinic at Camp Liberty. He met Cmdr. Springle, and had a fairly positive interaction.
He returned the next day and a hostile one with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones. Russell said he wanted to be fixed.
He and Jones argued. Russell left believing Jones wanted Russell to take his own life.
Russell’s military escort drove them for 40 minutes back to their headquarters at Camp Stryker. Russell took the rifle, and forced the escort to give him the keys to the truck.
He testified that he wanted to pull over and kill himself, but he could not find a secluded place to do it. He parked at the Camp Liberty stress clinic. Maj. Houseal was his first victim.
Sgt. John Russell this morning pleaded guilty to killing five military service members at a mental health clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad four years ago, but his pretrial agreement includes a contested portion that will be argued later today.
Russell, 48, refused to plead guilty to murdering the service members with premeditation. Prosecutors plan to argue that point today.
Russell’s pretrial agreement removes the threat of the death penalty from his case. His maximum penalty is to a life sentence.
His court-martial is on a recess while he reviews documents that are related to his agreement.
Russell entered his plea while flanked by his two military defense attorneys and his civilian lawyer, James Culp.
Family members of Russell’s victims also are in court to observe the hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Some of them have expressed frustration in news reports that it has taken four years to bring the case to trial.
Russell was seeking treatment at the clinic, but grew frustrated over a period of several days when he came to believe that medical officers were not taking him seriously. He had expressed suicidal and homicidal thoughts to his command. He was on his third combat deployment.
He killed Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle and the Army’s Maj. Matthew Houseal, Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates Jr. on May 11, 2009.
The case is important not only because it represents the worst case of fratricide of the Iraq War, but also because of the questions it raises about the military’s mental health system after more than a decade of war.
Other visitors observing the trial include military and civilian attorneys for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Lewis-McChord Stryker soldier who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians outside a combat outpost in Kandahar Province last year. Bales’ attorneys have argued the four-time combat veterans was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Russell was last serving in a Iraq with a Germany-based combat engineer unit. His on trial at the base south of Tacoma because his unit fell under the command of a Lewis-McChord brigade in Iraq.