JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) — Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was largely calm and compliant when he turned himself in following a predawn massacre at two Afghan villages in March, witnesses testified Tuesday. He followed orders, sometimes sat with his head in his hands, and at one point cracked a joke in a failed effort to ease tension.
But he also deliberately mangled his laptop, said two soldiers assigned to accompany him while he gathered his things.
One of them, Sgt. Ross O’Rourke, testified that he removed the laptop from Sgt. Bales’ rucksack after the defendant told him he didn’t want to take it with him. Sgt. O’Rourke said Sgt. Bales then grabbed the computer and folded the screen back, breaking it.
That didn’t prevent investigators from retrieving information from the computer, Sgt. O’Rourke said. He didn’t say, however, what information was collected.
Sgt. O’Rourke’s testimony came on the second day of a preliminary hearing for Sgt. Bales, 39, a veteran of four combat tours who faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The hearing will help determine whether the case goes to a court martial.
On Monday, Cpl. David Godwin testified that Sgt. Bales asked him to bleach his blood-soaked clothes.
The March 11 attack on the villages of Balandi and Alkozai prompted the United States to halt combat operations for days in the face of protests. It was a month before military investigators could reach the crime scenes.
A prosecutor’s opening statement and other witness testimony Monday suggested Sgt. Bales spent the evening before the massacre at his remote outpost of Camp Belambay with fellow soldiers, watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their friends his leg.
Within hours, a cape-wearing Sgt. Bales embarked on a killing spree of his own, slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians before returning to the base in predawn darkness, bloody and incredulous that his comrades ordered him to surrender his weapons, said Lt. Col. Jay Morse, the prosecutor.
“I thought I was doing the right thing,” a fellow soldier recalled him saying.
Col. Morse said that after Sgt. Bales attacked one village, he returned to his post, woke a colleague to report what he had done, and said that he was headed out to attack another village. The colleague took it as a bad joke.
“I never got out of bed, sir,” the colleague, Sgt. Jason McLaughlin, testified. “I thought it was ridiculously out of the realm of normal possibility, sir.”
Sgt. Bales has not entered a plea. His attorneys have not discussed the evidence but say Sgt. Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.
The defense did not give an opening statement. Sgt. Bales was not expected to testify.
A surveillance blimp captured video of a caped man — identified as Sgt. Bales — returning to the base. He was greeted by Sgt. McLaughlin and other soldiers with “weapons at the ready,” Col. Morse said.
Sgt. McLaughlin said Sgt. Bales’ first words were, “Are you (expletive) kidding me?”
Sgt. McLaughlin testified that he then turned to Sgt. McLaughlin and asked, “Mac, did you rat me out?”
Sgt. McLaughlin replied, “No.”
The night before the raids, Sgt. Bales and two other soldiers watched “Man on Fire,” a fictional 2004 Denzel Washington movie about a former CIA operative on a revenge spree, the prosecutor said.
Cpl. Godwin testified that Sgt. Bales seemed normal as they shared whiskey, discussed Sgt. Bales’ anxiety over whether he would get a promotion and talked about another soldier who lost his leg a week in an attack a week earlier.
Shortly before leaving the base, Sgt. Bales told a Special Forces soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear, that he was unhappy with his family life and that the troops should have been quicker to retaliate for the March 5 bomb attack, Col. Morse said.
“At all times, he had a clear understanding of what he was doing and what he had done,” said Col. Morse, who described Sgt. Bales as lucid and responsive.
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