September 1, 2007

Camp Pendleton — A sergeant granted immunity from prosecution for allegedly murdering five Iraqi men in Haditha crumbled under hard questioning by a Marine Corps lawyer in the second day of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich’s Article 32 hearing.

Wuterich, 27, from Meriden, Connecticut is accused of murdering 17 Iraqi civilians following the ambush of his squad on November 19, 2005. During the daylong fight, 24 Iraqis were killed by Marines, dueling with several groups of insurgents hiding among the civilians cowering in their homes. When the fighting ended eight insurgents had been killed and at least two others were captured, one of them holding an infant he had grabbed from a nearby home. The Marine Corps has characterized the fight as a ‘city-wide, complex ambush’ that left one Marine dead and 11 others wounded.

Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz alternately seemed confused, mystified, and dumbfounded during his rambling testimony.

Government prosecutors hope Dela Cruz can convince Investigating Officer Lt. Col Paul J. Ware to recommend Wuterich stand general courts-martial for the alleged murders. If Wuterich is found guilty of the charges he faces a possible dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps and life imprisonment for his role in the killings.

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Sgt. Dela Cruz’s testimony

During the proceedings Friday, while Dela Cruz stumbled through his testimony, Wuterich seemed calm and collected. Sitting behind him was his wife, mother and father, who have suffered both deep emotional and severe financial hardship finding the means to afford civilian defense attorneys to defend him.

The first two hours of testimony on Friday was driven by government prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan, a Chicago lawyer and Marine Corps reservist prosecuting the case. Sullivan led Dela Cruz through the opening minutes of the day-long fight that began when an Improvised Explosive Device detonated next to a Humvee in a convoy of four vehicles, killing one Marine and wounding two others.

According to Dela Cruz, Wuterich gunned down five Iraqi men standing by a white sedan stopped adjacent to the ambush site seconds after the bomb exploded. Dela Cruz testified that Wuterich began shooting the men without provocation after they emerged from his vehicle.

Dela Cruz’s most damaging testimony came when he claimed that a week before the deadly ambush Wuterich told him that his squad should kill everyone in the area if they were ever attacked by a roadside bomb.

During four hours of cross examination by defense attorney Lt. Col. Colby C. Vokey, Dela Cruz was unable to clearly explain his previous testimony. At one point he simply stopped talking and stared into the distance, seemingly at a loss for words. At other times he simply rambled on until he was ordered to quit talking.

Vokey was particularly critical of Dela Cruz’s characterization of the attack on the five Iraqis he claims were standing by a white car that appeared at the ambush site almost simultaneously with the IED explosion. Vokey pointed out that Dela Cruz had offered government prosecutors at least three different versions of what happened during the episode.

Dela Cruz explained that he was lying during those statements to protect himself and his squad from possible retribution by investigators. He said he eventually decided to tell the truth after his battalion had redeployed back to its home base at Camp Pendleton without himself and four other Marines initially charged with murder.

“It was a false statement that I made to NCIS,” Dela Cruz said in response to Vokey’s question about why he had lied in two previous statements to investigators. “The whole battalion was gone and myself, Sharratt, Tatum, Salinas and Mendoza were the only ones left. I decided to tell the truth.”

A few minutes later Dela Cruz tried again to explain away the inconsistencies he made in his previous sworn statements to Army and NCIS investigators about his role in the alleged murders of the five Iraqi men standing by the white car.

“In the April 2nd statement – first of all I would like say that the statement I made on 18 March (2006) – was correct except for the white car.”

Vokey interrupts him.

“You lied because you were worried that you committed murder. You were worried that you committed murder. Just a few minutes ago you said you didn’t shoot them, that they were already dead. So why would you be worried about committing murder?” Vokey asked.

“I shot at them, I shot at them, sir,” Dela Cruz responded.

“Maybe you are worried that you committed murder because you were the first one to shoot.”

“No, sir,” Dela Cruz answered.

“If you say the Staff Sergeant Wuterich was the one firing and you didn’t perceive a threat from the white car, then why did you ever say that you fired – but you didn’t shoot them?” Vokey retorted. “So why were you worried about being charged with murder? If they were already dead you couldn’t murder them, could you?”

Dela Cruz didn’t answer.

Vokey’s challenge to Dela Cruz’s veracity over the ‘white car incident’ was only the beginning of his confrontation with the prosecution’s star witness. About an hour later, Vokey took Dela Cruz to task again.

“[In your first two statements]”you said you were firing at the white car and that they were running and you yelled “kuff, kuff, stop, stop.” How many seconds after the IED went off did they stop their vehicle? Vokey demanded.

“Maybe a second, sir”, Dela Cruz responded.

“When they got out of their vehicle after an IED explosion you did not perceive them as a threat? On the…first NCIS statement you said it was you who fired first. You changed your answer to Sgt. Wuterich was the one who fired”.

“That is the truth, sir,” Dela Cruz answered.

“Then what were they doing?” Vokey demanded.

“They were being nosy. They had their hands up looking around, they were being nosy, being curious. I did not see them as a threat, they were just standing there,” Dela Cruz explained.

“After he started firing first you preceded behind the vehicle and started shooting them on the ground?” Vokey demanded.

“After I saw Sgt. Wuterich shooting at them I thought they might be a threat.”

“You thought they might be dead, correct,” Vokey inquired.

“Yes, sir.”

So why did you shoot into the bodies? Vokey asked.

“Just to make sure they are dead,” Dela Cruz responded.

“If they are dead they are not a threat, are they?” Vokey continued.

“I just wanted to make sure they were dead,” Dela Cruz explained.

“You were pissing on his skull, weren’t you? His head was split open and you were urinating on his skull. Did someone see you do this? In your statement you said you might have seen [that] somebody had seen you. You were just pissing on a dead man’s skull.”

“Yes sir,” Dela Cruz responded.

And later:

“I know it was wrong, my emotions took over,” Dela Cruz explained. “I know it was the wrong thing to do and I wasn’t thinking right. T.J. [Miguel “T.J. Terrazas “killed in the IED explosion] was gone and two other Marines were hurt and my emotions took over.”

And later:

“Did you fail a polygraph?” Vokey demanded.

“Yes, sir.”

“No further questions.”

Charges coming in the Fallujah investigation

Meanwhile, the unrelated case against another group of Marines for an incident during the battle of Fallujah in November, 2004 continues to grind forward. Defend Our Marines has learned that in addition to former sergeant Jose Luis Nazario and Sergeant Jermaine Nelson, already charged in connection with the alleged murders, as many as five other Marines from the embattled 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, may be implicated in that alleged incident.

Kilo Company, 3/1 was lauded as one of the finest combat units in the United States Marines Corps when it returned from Iraq after its second deployment in March, 2005. Its ranks included two Navy Cross recipients and a platoon’s worth of Silver and Bronze Star recipients decorated for their heroic campaign in 2004. Two years later it would be recognized again, as the most disgraced unit in the entire Marine Corps.

Some of the men who fought at Fallujah, including former Corporal Ryan Weemer, who initially made the allegations, could be recalled to active duty so the government can pursue the investigation, sources said. Currently Weemer is a college student in Kentucky. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has been pursuing the investigation since Weemer revealed the alleged murders during a polygraph examination for a uniformed Secret Service job last year. Charges against at least one more Marine are expected to be announced Tuesday.

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
September 2007

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam vet, journalist, combat reporter, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).