Army drops murder charge against last soldier tied to 'kill team' cases
By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 4, 2012
TACOMA, Wash. — The Army on Friday dropped its case against the fifth and final soldier it accused of murdering Afghan civilians during a 2010 deployment with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
The decision ends a 19-month ordeal for Spc. Michael Wagnon, 31, who came home early from his deployment in June 2010 facing charges that he murdered a noncombatant and tried to obstruct an investigation into wrongdoing among his platoon mates.
“The Army finally did the right thing in Wagnon’s case,” attorney Colby Vokey said. “We maintained that Wagnon is innocent all along, and this is just affirmation of his complete innocence in any killing or shooting.”
Wagnon, a father of three who lives at Lewis-McChord, turned out to be the exception in a group of 12 Stryker soldiers who were charged with misdeeds in southern Afghanistan: He was the only to have his case dismissed.
“He is ecstatic,” Vokey said. Wagnon “kept saying, ‘This is such great news, this is such great news.’”
Wagnon was expected to go to trial in March, and he faced life in prison on the murder charge. Vokey said the Army dismissed the case as evidence mounted in Wagnon’s favor.
The Army did not say why it dropped the charges. Lewis-McChord senior commander Maj. Gen. Lloyd Miles chose to dismiss the case “in the interest of justice,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said in a written statement.
Vokey declined to make Wagnon available for an interview Friday night. Wagnon still could face discipline for infractions during his deployment, Vokey said.
Four of Wagnon’s co-defendants are serving time in prison in connection with three civilian killings they carried out by manufacturing combat-like scenarios to cover up their crimes.
They were undone in May 2010 when seven soldiers assaulted then-Pfc. Justin Stoner after he complained outside his unit about drug use in their platoon. The beating drew attention to the platoon and revealed the civilian killings.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs is serving a life sentence for the three murders and his role in leading the so-called kill team. Spc. Jeremy Morlock, Gibbs’ right-hand man-turned-informant, is serving a 24-year sentence for the killings.
The case against Wagnon appeared weaker than the others from the beginning. An Army investigating officer twice recommended that prosecutors dismiss the case after pretrial hearings over the past 15 months.
The Army’s case hinged on Morlock, who has testified that Wagnon knowingly participated in a scheme to kill a civilian during a February 2010 patrol in the village of Kari Kheyl.
Morlock gave investigators two significantly different accounts of Wagnon’s involvement that day. In one interview, he said Wagnon did not know the victim was set up by Gibbs.
Later, Morlock said Gibbs asked Wagnon if he wanted to join in executing the Afghan. Morlock said Wagnon complied, saying, “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
By Morlock’s account, Gibbs then shot at a wall with an “off-the-books” AK-47 he was carrying before killing the Afghan with his own rifle. Morlock said Wagnon then shot at the Afghan to embellish Gibbs’ story that the Afghan was a threat.
Wagnon has testified that he shot at the Afghan that day because he believed the man had fired a weapon on Gibbs. Gibbs insisted at his trial in November that the Afghan shot first, but a military jury sided with Morlock and found Gibbs guilty of murder for that shooting.
Wagnon was one of the most experienced soldiers to face charges in connection with the “kill team.” He had served on two deployments to Iraq and was well-regarded by soldiers from his previous units. They came to his defense on a website they created and in letters they wrote to Army leaders.
“Thank you, Jesus,” friend Adrian Stutzman wrote on a Facebook page for Wagnon’s supporters. Stutzman is a former Army staff sergeant who served with Wagnon in Iraq.
“I am so happy I am crying,” another friend wrote.
Distributed by MCT Information Services