Airman said to have acted alone in killing of AFN broadcaster
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 25, 2014
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — An American airman charged with murdering Petty Officer 2nd Class Dmitry Chepusov has admitted to the killing and says he acted alone, defense attorneys for a soldier charged as his accomplice said Thursday.
The disclosure came during a hearing to determine whether Army Spc. Cody A. Kramer will face a court-martial for his alleged involvement in the death of Chepusov, an American Forces Network broadcaster.
Testimony at the Article 32 hearing suggested that Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Oliver’s fear of having his inappropriate relationship with Chepusov’s wife exposed provided motive for killing the sailor. The suspects and the victim all worked in the same AFN-Europe office at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Oliver and Kramer worked as broadcast engineers.
Oliver was charged with Chepusov’s murder in March, three months after German police found the sailor’s body in the passenger seat of the car Oliver was driving in Kaiserslautern in the early morning of Dec. 14.
Kramer’s defense team asked the Army officer investigating the charges against their client to throw out all but one offense — that he made false official statements. They pointed to the sworn statement given by Oliver, in which the staff sergeant admitted his guilt.
“You have the real killer admitting that he did the killing and moved the body” by himself, Army Capt. Samuel Landes, one of Kramer’s attorneys, told investigating officer Maj. Thomas Hynes.
The Article 32, a proceeding similar to a civilian grand jury, did not go into all aspects of the murder.
Prosecutors allege that Kramer, described by witnesses as one of Oliver’s best friends, helped the airman plan and execute the slaying and aided in trying to cover it up.
Chepusov, who was 31 when he died, wanted to divorce his wife, Alejandra Zolezzi, and had made that clear to everyone in their office, said Sgt. Felicia Lilly, a defense witness who worked with both of the accused and Chepusov.
Lilly said she was surprised when Zolezzi, who had gone back to the United States in November, returned to Germany.
In her testimony, Zolezzi admitted that she had begun a sexual relationship with Oliver. She said her husband was also looking for a relationship outside the marriage, and chatted with at least one woman online while Zolezzi was in the home they shared in the Air Force’s Vogelweh Housing Area.
Zolezzi said Chepusov returned from a trip to Ukraine, where he met with one of the women he found online, less than a week before he was killed.
According to prosecutors, Chepusov wanted to break from Zolezzi completely and threatened to disclose her relationship with Oliver to their chain of command at AFN-Europe. Were he to have done that, Zolezzi would have been sent back to the U.S. Oliver, meanwhile, might have lost both his girlfriend and his military career, said Capt. Daniel O’Connor, one of two lawyers for the prosecution.
Three days before Oliver allegedly murdered Chepusov, he met up with Zolezzi, Kramer and another close friend, Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Skinkle, at a restaurant in downtown Kaiserslautern, Skinkle testified.
There, prosecutors allege that Oliver, Kramer and Zolezzi discussed Chepusov’s life insurance policy, known as Servicemembers Group Life Insurance. Skinkle testified that the subject came up at the restaurant, but he couldn’t remember the details of the conversation.
The prosecution contends that, at the very least, Kramer was aware that Oliver planned to murder Chepusov in order to save his career and keep his girlfriend, who would receive a $400,000 life insurance payout when Chepusov died.
To back this claim, O’Connor noted that a day after the meeting at the restaurant, Kramer posted a cartoon on Facebook depicting a love triangle that ended with a murder. Kramer was also present when the murder happened, according to witness testimony. Kramer had argued with Chepusov immediately before Oliver stepped in and asked to speak with Chepusov privately in Skinkle’s kitchen, where the murder is believed to have occurred.
Kramer closed the kitchen door, and when another person in the apartment — Air Force Staff Sgt. Shao-Lung Ping — inquired about the sound of breaking glass coming from the kitchen, “Kramer said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Ping testified.
Ping said that he tried to leave Skinkle’s Kaiserslautern apartment during the commotion, and the only way out was through the kitchen. When he opened the kitchen door, Oliver yelled at him to close it.
Ping left the door open about a foot, he said, and sat back down on a couch next to Kramer, who tried to get him to watch YouTube videos of heavy metal music. Ping looked back to the kitchen once and saw Oliver kick Chepusov’s limp body twice like a soccer ball; Kramer ignored the commotion throughout, Ping testified.
“It just defies logic” that this would be a “series of unfortunate coincidences,” O’Connor said.
Landes, Kramer’s attorney, highlighted Ping’s testimony of having overheard Oliver and Kramer talking in Skinkle’s kitchen after the murder, and Kramer appeared to sound surprised when Oliver told him that Chepusov was dead.
Ping said he didn’t report overhearing that conversation because he was afraid of reprisal from Oliver.
O’Connor said there is no doubt that Oliver assaulted and strangled Chepusov to death. But the prosecution alleges that Kramer might have assisted Oliver in covering up the murder by helping move the body and giving Oliver the keys to Skinkle’s house and car.
That argument largely hinged on the testimony of an Army Criminal Investigation Command special agent, who testified that the location of blood stains on the walls of Skinkle’s apartment suggested that two people carried the body.
Skinkle was blacked out drunk for much of the evening, including when the murder occurred, Ping and Skinkle both testified. Ping said he left soon after hearing Oliver tell Kramer that Chepusov was dead. That left just Kramer and Oliver to move the body to the car, O’Connor said.
But the prosecution did not yet have the results of DNA and other forensic evidence that could verify whether Kramer had a hand in moving the body. Because that evidence wasn’t presented at the Article 32, it can’t be considered by the investigating officer who will recommend whether Kramer should face a court-martial, Landes said.
“You can’t speculate about what might come back.”
Landes said the government has already bungled the case against Kramer and asked that the investigating officer consider pressing ahead only on the charge that the soldier made a false official statement, which the defense doesn’t contest.