WASHINGTON – Five indicted Blackwater Worldwide security guards plan to surrender to the FBI Monday in Salt Lake City, about 2,000 miles from the Washington courthouse where they were charged, a person close to the case said.
Such a move would be the opening salvo in what is shaping up to be a contentious legal fight before the guards can even get to trial. By surrendering in Utah, the home state of one of the guards, the men can argue for a trial there — a far more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington.
The person described the decision to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the indictment against the men remains sealed.
The five guards, all military veterans, were indicted for their roles in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. The shooting strained U.S. diplomacy and fueled anti-American sentiment abroad.
Steven McCool, a lawyer for Blackwater guard and former Marine Donald Ball, confirmed Sunday that his client would surrender in Utah. Ball is from West Valley City, Utah.
"Donald Ball committed no crime," McCool said. "We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government."
The other guards indicted are Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tennessee; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
The Justice Department has not commented on the case.
The charges have not been announced but the department had been reviewing manslaughter and assault charges against the guards for weeks. Prosecutors also are planning to use an aggressive law intended to crack down on drug dealers that calls for mandatory 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes.
"It would be outrageous to charge Mr. Ball with firearms offenses relating to guns issued by the State Department," McCool said.
The Blackwater guards, hired by the U.S. to guard State Department diplomats in Iraq, carry automatic weapons and drive heavily armored vehicles equipped with turret guns.
The shooting at the heart of the case involved a convoy of those vehicles responding to a Sept. 16, 2007 car bombing in downtown Baghdad. Entering a busy traffic circle, the convoy opened fire. Witnesses said Blackwater was unprovoked. The company says its guards were ambushed.
By the time the shooting stopped, 17 Iraqis, including children, were dead and Nisoor Square was a mess of blown-out cars.