RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The American airman accused of killing Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov could face the death penalty if his case goes to trial, military officials said Friday.
Staff Sgt. Sean M. Oliver is charged with premeditated murder for allegedly strangling Chepusov, an American Forces Network broadcaster and Oliver’s colleague, with his hands at the house of another AFN airman in December. Chepusov’s body was found in the passenger seat of Oliver’s car early in the morning of Dec. 14, after German police pulled Oliver over for driving erratically in Kaiserslautern.
Oliver, who worked as a broadcast engineer at AFN and had been romantically linked to Chepusov’s wife, appeared in court Friday at Ramstein for an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury. He was charged in March.
Investigating officer Lt. Col. Christopher Leavey, who presided over the hearing and heard more than six hours of testimony Friday, will recommend whether Oliver should face a court-martial, on what specific charges and whether the death penalty should be sought. The convening authority, Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, will make the final decision, lawyers for the government said.
In addition to murder, Oliver is charged with making two false official statements, aggravated assault and two counts of obstructing justice.
Another AFN broadcast engineer, Army Spc. Cody A. Kramer, could also be tried for his alleged involvement in Chepusov’s death. Prosecutors alleged at Kramer’s Article 32 hearing in April that he helped Oliver plan and carry out the murder and assisted Oliver in trying to cover it up.
Kramer did not testify Friday.
Leavey heard testimony from Maj. Dori Mitchell Franco, an Army pathologist and the Armed Forces regional medical director.
Franco performed an autopsy on Chepusov’s body on Dec. 20, after German medical examiners had conducted an initial autopsy. Franco concluded Chepusov died from injuries to the head and neck “consistent with strangulation.”
But she testified that the procedure was hindered by German authorities’ decision not to turn over a part of Chepusov’s throat. She also said she was not able to collect any DNA evidence because her autopsy was conducted a week after Chepusov’s death.
On the night that he died, Chepusov was at Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Skinkle’s apartment in Kaiserslautern with Skinkle, Oliver, Kramer and Air Force Staff Sgt. Shao-Lung Ping. Skinkle and Ping also worked at the AFN office on Ramstein.
The group had been drinking at a downtown bar before going to Skinkle’s house to celebrate Skinkle’s birthday.
Oliver changed his story twice about what happened that night, according to testimony. He initially said he put Chepusov in his car after finding him walking “like a zombie” around Kaiserslautern and that he did not know that he was dead when he was stopped by German authorities. He later said he pushed Chepusov at Skinkle’s and that Chepusov hit his head and was knocked out, according to the lead investigator on the case, Deric Hiscock of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Oliver, according to Hisock, said that he put Chepusov in the bathroom and that when he went back to get him, Chepusov attacked him, so Oliver strangled him to try and subdue him. Oliver told Hiscock that he felt Chepusov was still alive when he put him into the car, Hiscock testified.
Ping testified that he saw Chepusov lying limp on the kitchen floor while Oliver kicked him twice in the side like a soccer ball. He later left the apartment; he didn’t see Chepusov again and didn’t ask Oliver about him.
Ping didn’t disclose he was at the apartment that night until three weeks later, when military investigators contacted him.
Leavey asked him why he didn’t come forward after learning the next day that Chepusov was dead.
“I was afraid,” Ping said.
“What were you afraid of?” Leavey asked.
“Reprisals. Getting in trouble because I was there,” he said.
Chepusov’s wife, Karla Alejandra Zolezzi, who now lives in Brownsville, Texas, testified that Chepusov had asked for a divorce and that he consented to her relationship with Oliver.
She said she didn’t recall who said “wouldn’t you want Dmitry to be in an accident?” while dining with Skinkle, Kramer and Oliver days before Chepusov’s death.