JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – An Army sergeant accused of masterminding a plan to kill Afghan civilians for sport used manipulation and intimidation to lead other soldiers into acts of unspeakable cruelty, an Army prosecutor told a military hearing Tuesday.
But the defense attorney for Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs said the government has no physical evidence against the 25-year-old from Billings, Mont. — only the statements of other soldiers, many of whom also are charged in the case.
Gibbs is the highest-ranking of five soldiers accused in the murders of three innocent Afghan civilians during patrols in Kandahar Province this year. He went before a military Article 32 hearing — similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle to determine if there's enough evidence to court-martial him. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
Gibbs did not testify, nor did any of the other 11 soldiers charged in the case. The only testimony heard by presiding officer Col. Thomas Molloy was mostly background information from three Army investigators, a medical officer and Gibbs' former platoon leader.
In one of the most gruesome cases to emerge from the Afghan war, fellow soldiers contend Gibbs drew them into the killings, threatened them and collected fingers of the dead.
Gibbs faces three counts of premeditated murder plus charges of assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and trying to impede an investigation. He's denied the accusations, saying the deaths resulted from justified engagements in combat.
Army prosecutor Capt. Andre Leblanc said sworn statements by other soldiers in Gibbs's unit show he took "trusting junior soldiers he led down the dark path."
Gibbs planted the idea of killing innocent Afghans and provided the means to do so, Leblanc said.
Gibbs' civilian defense attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, told Molloy that the government has no physical or forensic evidence, only the inconsistent statements of soldiers, some of whom also face murder or other serious charges.
The statements, he said, "are strangely similar in nature but not similar in facts."
Gibbs arrived in the platoon late last year and soon began telling his subordinates how easy it would be to kill civilians, some soldiers said in statements to investigators.
"That's when it started going south," Leblanc said. "That's when people start getting killed."
The soldiers said he devised scenarios under which he could kill Afghan civilians, suggesting in one case that if he and his men came across someone in a village thought to be Taliban-influenced, they could toss a grenade and claim they had been responding to a threat.
Gibbs also illicitly collected weapons which he could plant on the bodies of dead civilians to make them appear to be combatants, the soldiers said.
In addition to the killings, Gibbs and some of his men fired at — but missed — two unarmed farmers during a patrol in late March, investigators were told.
The probe of the killings started after a witness in a drug investigation, Pvt. 1st Class Justin Stoner, reported being badly beaten by a group of soldiers led by Gibbs.
Stoner said Gibbs and the other central figure in the case, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, later returned to his room, where Gibbs laid a set of severed fingers on the floor as Morlock warned him not to rat.
Stoner, who is not charged in the case, declined to testify Tuesday. However, he told investigators that he believed Morlock had three unjustified kills.
The first was in January. Morlock told investigators it happened a few weeks after Gibbs gave him an illicit grenade and told him he should carry out the scenario they had discussed.
Morlock said he threw the grenade at a man in a field as another soldier, Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, shot; Holmes says he had no knowledge of any plot to kill civilians.
Spc. Adam Winfield, who is charged with one count of murder, sent messages home to his parents in Cape Coral, Fla., after that killing, telling them his colleagues had murdered a civilian. The soldiers were urging him to get one of his own, he said, and he was being threatened to keep quiet.
Winfield's father called several phone numbers at Lewis-McChord that day. He said he told a sergeant about his son's situation and urged the Army to intervene, and his phone records reflect a 12-minute conversation with someone at the base.
Gibbs is accused of killing a civilian in February, a week after Winfield's father made the calls. Gibbs also allegedly dropped an AK-47 by the victim's body to make it appear he was armed. Spc. Michael Wagnon is accused of participating in that killing, but denies involvement.
In the third killing, in May, Gibbs is accused of tossing a grenade at a civilian as Morlock and Winfield shot. They told investigators the victim posed no threat; Winfield, who said he felt pressured by Gibbs, called it "the worst thing I've ever done in my life."
Morlock claimed to be deathly afraid of Gibbs even as he participated in killings: "He's crazy. There's something wrong with that guy," he told investigators in a videotaped interrogation.
The Army announced last month that a court martial would be held for Morlock, though no date was given, and that he would face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.