Sgt. Dominic Morales still hears an “evil chuckle” in his nightmares.
He remembers it as the frightening laugh Sgt. John Russell emitted just before he shot another helpless, unarmed soldier in the face inside a Baghdad combat stress clinic four years ago.
The victim “didn’t have a weapon. He was just a sitting duck,” Morales testified today at the second day of Russell’s court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Russell, 48, has already pleaded guilty to killing a Navy commander and four soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic on May 11, 2009. He’s on trial facing a life sentence as he fights the Army’s accusation that he killed the men with premeditation.
Morales, then a behavioral health technician working as a clerk at the clinic, somehow escaped Russell that day. He provided chilling testimony describing how he and others attempted to hide from a gunman in a building where none of them were allowed to carry their own weapons.
As Russell moved through building shooting anyone he saw, the sound of gunfire “started echoing,” Morales said. “It felt like it was right on top of you.”
Morales knew Russell as a patient at the clinic. Morales, a soft-spoken Reservist, admitted Russell to the clinic three times for appointments before the killings, he said.
They saw each other earlier that day before Russell’s appointment with psychiatrist Lt. Col. Michael Jones. Morales saw Russell leave that meeting apparently unsatisfied, and called military police when Jones asked for them. Morales did not hear any threats about violence as the meeting came to an end.
About an hour later, Morales was sitting in a room with two soldiers who were also admitted to the clinic and one of their escorts. They were Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, Spc. Jacob Barton and Pfc. Michael Yates.
They heard a shot from the back of the building, but thought it might have been a door slamming. Then they heard several more gunshots.
Yates grabbed a weapon in the lobby and prayed it had a round. Morales saw him run to the direction of the gunfire and then turn back.
He heard more shots, and then Yates went silent.
Bueno-Galdos hid in a cabinet. Morales and Barton crouched under a desk.
The gunman entered their room. Under the desk, Morales could see only that the gunman had Army-issued boots.
He whispered to Barton “It’s one of our people.”
The shooter left, but returned and shot Bueno-Galdos in the side. Morales remembers Russell chuckling, and then shooting Bueno-Galdos once more in the head.
Barton could not hide himself completely under the desk. Russell shot him in the head and then left the room again.
Morales knew he couldn’t stay in the room. He counted to “three Mississippi” and then said “let’s go” to the two soldiers in the room he knew were already dead.
“In my mind I felt like if I had somebody with me, it would feel better,” he said.
Morales heaved Barton off of him and made a break for the hallway exit. Russell spotted him and shot twice, missing.
On his way out, Morales encountered Russell’s second victim, Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle. Morales leaped over the body and continued sprinting in his bloodied uniform.
His testimony brought tears from several of the dozen relatives of Russell’s victims who are attending the court-martial. One of them left the room.
Today in court, Russell’s defense attorney has been asking witnesses whether they remember Russell as a suicidal on the day of the killings, or if he expressed a wish to harm others. So far, they’ve been saying Russell wanted to kill himself.
Prosecutors have been countering by asking witnesses if they’re still suffering psychological wounds from the attack.
Prosecutor Maj. Daniel Mazzone asked Morales if he considered the killings traumatic. “Yes sir,” Morales replied.
Mazzone asked Morales for how long he was traumatized.
“I still am,” he said.