US Afghan shooter neighbours shocked

2012-03-17 14:44
Lake Tapps - Neighbours of a soldier accused of gunning down 16 Afghan women and children in a night time rampage describe him as a family man who was "just one of the guys".

Reporters swarmed a neighbourhood in a rural, wooded community about 56km south of Seattle, as attorney John Henry Browne confirmed the suspect, his client, was Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales from Lake Tapps, Washington.

"I just can't believe Bob's the guy who did this," said Paul Wohlberg, a next-door neighbour who said his family was friendly with the Bales family. "A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time. ... I never thought something like this would happen to him."

Wohlberg described Bales as a "good guy - just one of the guys".

Five days after the shooting, a senior US official first confirmed on Friday it was Bales, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation into an incident that has roiled relations with Afghanistan. Military officials had said throughout the week that it was policy not to release the name until charges were filed.

Detention centre

Kassie Holland, who lives next door, said she would often see Bales playing with his two kids and the family together at the modern split-level home.

"My reaction is that I'm shocked," Holland said. "I can't believe it was him. There were no signs. It's really sad. I don't want to believe that he did it.

"He always had a good attitude about being in the service. He was never really angry about it," she said. "When I heard him talk, he said, it seemed like, 'Yeah, that's my job. That's what I do.' He never expressed a lot of emotion toward it."

Bales has not yet been charged. He was flown from Kuwait and arrived on Friday evening at a military detention centre at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the military's only maximum-security prison.

The Army said he was placed in his own cell, not a normal four-person bay. He will get time out of his cell for hygiene and recreational purposes and religious support, if he desires.

An Air Force cargo jet arrived at Kansas City International Airport, about an hour from the military prison, shortly after 21:00 on  Friday. Security was tight, with the terminal completely blocked off, and a convoy of unmarked vehicles pulled off the tarmac and out of the airport.

Bales enlisted about two months after the September 11 2001 terror attacks and had served with the 3rd Stryker Brigade based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord since September 11 2002. He became a staff sergeant in April 2008, following his second deployment in Iraq.

He went to Iraq one more time before his fourth deployment, to Afghanistan.

'Not thrilled'

"I kind of sympathise for him, being gone, being sent over there four times," said Beau Britt, who lives across the street. "I can understand he's probably quite wracked mentally, so I just hope that things are justified in court. I hope it goes okay."

Browne said his client was injured twice while deployed to Iraq. Bales suffered a concussion in a vehicle accident caused by an improvised explosive device, Browne said, and sustained a battle-related injury requiring surgery that removed part of one foot. Browne added his client was "highly decorated".

Browne said when the 11-year veteran heard he was being sent to Afghanistan late in 2011, he did not want to go.

"He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," he said. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

Wohlberg said he last saw Bales in November, shortly before he deployed.

"I just told him to be safe," he said. "He said 'I will. See you when I get back.'"

Bales and his wife bought the Lake Tapps home in 2005, according to records. The home was placed on the market on Monday, the day after the attack, and was listed at $229 000. Overflowing boxes were piled on the front porch, and a US flag leaned against the siding.

Shooting spree

Bales completed 20 hours of anger-management counselling following a 2002 arrest at a Tacoma hotel for investigation of assault. Browne said the case involved a woman other than Bales' wife, whom he married in 2005.

Tacoma Municipal court administrator Yvonne Pettus provided a copy of the court docket, but said clerks could not immediately locate the case file, which is either in archives or destroyed. The docket shows that Bales pleaded not guilty, underwent the 20 hours of anger management treatment, and the case was dismissed.

Records also associated with Bales show that in 2009 he had a hit-and-run charge dismissed in municipal court in Sumner.

The staff sergeant arrived in Afghanistan in December. On February 1 he was assigned to a base in the Panjwai District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force that pairs special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighbourhood security.

On March 10, the day before the shooting spree, Browne said the soldier saw his friend's leg blown off. Browne said his client's family provided him with that information, which has not been independently verified.

Officials said Bales was wearing a Nato forces uniform when he moved through the nearby villages of Alkozai and Balandi, barging into homes and opening fire on those inside, then burning some of the bodies. Nine of those killed were children. Eleven of the dead were from a single family.

A surveillance video captured by a blimp that surveys the area around the base shows that the soldier later approached the south gate of the base with an Afghan shawl covering the weapon in his hands, according to an Afghan official who was shown the footage by his US counterparts.

Surrender

In the video, the man walks up to the base, lays down the weapon and raises his arms in surrender.

The sergeant's family said they saw no signs of aggression or anger. "They were totally shocked" by accounts of the massacre, Browne said. "He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's in general very mild-mannered."

The lawyer denied reports that Bales had marital problems, saying he and his wife have a solid relationship.

Alissa Cinkovich, 45, has lived in the neighbourhood for seven years, and said it was scary that Bales had been living nearby.

"I would like to think he just went off his rocker because of the war," Cinkovich said.

In a Cincinnati suburb, police were stationed around the home of someone believed to be a relative of Bales. Reporters were given a statement by police and encouraged not to approach homes in the quiet Evendale neighbourhood.

In the statement, Evendale Police Chief Niel Korte said the department was aware that a relative of the soldier may reside in the town. He believed that identifying the resident or address "may present a threat to their physical safety".

The identification of the shooter quickly elicited a variety of reactions throughout Twitter. Some used social media to condemn Bales and called him a terrorist. Others called him a war hero who should not have been deployed to Afghanistan after serving three tours in Iraq. Others offered prayers for him and his family.

Read more on:    us  |  afghanistan  |  afghanistan shooting

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