CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The leader of a squad of Marines that killed 24 Iraqis in Haditha told two of his men one week before the assault that if they ever were hit by a roadside bomb they should kill everyone in the area, a former squad member testified Friday.
Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz said he had the conversation with Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and Cpl. Hector Salinas while the men were smoking cigarettes during down time at a dam in Haditha. A roadside bomb had gone off that day and injured several Marines, Dela Cruz said.
Dela Cruz was testifying at a hearing to determine if Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., should stand trial on charges of murdering 17 Iraqis.
"Everybody was pretty much upset," Dela Cruz told prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan. "We were smoking outside ... for whatever reason Staff Sergeant Wuterich made this comment that if we ever got hit again we should kill everybody in that vicinity, sir, to teach them a lesson."
About a week later, on Nov. 19, 2005, another bomb did go off, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas. In the aftermath of the blast, five men who just got out of a white car were shot dead and other men, women and children died as Marines carried out a house-to-house sweep, ostensibly looking for the bomb's triggerman.
Dela Cruz was initially charged with murder for participating in the killing of the men by the car. Prosecutors have dropped those charges in return for his testimony.
In all, four enlisted Marines were charged with murder and four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the deaths. Charges have so far been dropped against three of the men.
Dela Cruz testified that he saw Wuterich shoot the five men by the car, then follow up with close-range chest shots to make sure they were dead. Dela Cruz said he too fired at the men, but that they were already dead when he did so.
Wuterich has previously said he shot the men because they were running away from the scene of the bomb blast and ignored his orders to halt. Military rules at the time allowed Marines to kill those seen fleeing in this way.
But Dela Cruz claimed the men were "just standing around," some with their hands interlocked on their heads.
"Those men are not running, sir," the rifleman testified. "Some of them had their hands up."
Dela Cruz also testified that Wuterich had told him that "if anybody asked about the five guys by the white car, that they were running away and the Iraqi army shot them."
The Marines were on patrol with a handful of Iraqi soldiers at the time.
Under questioning from Wuterich's lead military defense attorney, Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, Dela Cruz said he lied to investigators on at least two occasions and only came out with the "real" version of events about the time prosecutors gave him immunity to testify and dropped charges.
Vokey asked Dela Cruz what he had done in the hours after the shooting. Dela Cruz said he urinated on the head of one of the bodies. He said he was angry with the men because he thought they were responsible for the roadside bomb.
"At that time my emotion take over, we lost T.J. (Terrazas) and two other Marines were injured," Dela Cruz said.
Vokey said another Marine not charged in the case saw Dela Cruz kick a dead Iraqi in the head later in the day, but Dela Cruz denied that.
Not a native English speaker, Dela Cruz appeared perplexed at some of the questions posed to him. Wuterich watched intently as his former squad mate testified against him from a chair about 10 feet away, but the two men did not appear to make eye contact.
After Wuterich and Dela Cruz shot the Iraqis by the car, Wuterich led Lance Cpls. Stephen Tatum and Humberto Mendoza and Cpl. Hector Salinas in a sweep of two houses. Elderly people, women and children were among those killed as the Marines threw grenades into rooms then followed up with automatic gunfire.
Dela Cruz's incrimination of Wuterich at the scene of the car shooting was the first direct evidence the government presented suggesting Wuterich murdered anyone.
Mendoza testified Thursday that he saw dead women and children in the houses, but not who had killed them. Salinas is refusing to testify without immunity. Tatum is charged with murder and also won't testify without immunity.
Even if the prosecution cannot prove Wuterich directly killed anyone, he could still be held responsible because he was the squad leader who oversaw the assault.
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 the house raids.
Wuterich asserts that he was following combat rules in place at the time and that he attacked the houses because he thought gunfire was coming from them.
"We don't believe they did anything wrong that day," said Neal Puckett, Wuterich's civilian attorney.
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 by The Associated Press also shows Marines engaged in several other gunfights in the city.
The Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury probe.
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, the general overseeing the case, makes the final decision.
Ware has already presided over hearings for Tatum and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, who were charged with murder. In both cases, Ware recommended the charges be dismissed. Mattis dismissed Sharratt's case; a decision on Tatum is pending.
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.
The hearing was expected to resume next Wednesday.