TACOMA, Wash. — If he had it to do over, retired Army Sgt. Ken Katter said on Friday, he would have acted differently in how he eventually reported the 2007 shooting deaths of two unarmed, deaf Iraqi boys, allegedly by his Small-Kill Team leader, then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera.
“Looking back on it, I probably would've gone to Lt. (Andrew) Poppas,” Katter testified of his squadron commander. “It probably could've prevented a few things from happening.”
Katter, 47, a former police officer near Saginaw, Mich., testified that he saw Barbera fatally shoot the youths as they tended cattle. One boy was struck in the head; the other was shot in the chest when he stopped and put up his arms as if to surrender, Katter said during a military preliminary hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Barbera, 31, is charged with two counts of premeditated murder in the shooting deaths of Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 14, and his brother, Abbas, 14, outside the village of As Sadah, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.
He also is charged with two counts of prejudicial conduct, accused of lying to superiors about what happened and of threatening the wife of a Tribune-Review staff writer.
Lt. Col. Charles Floyd will recommend whether Barbera should face a full court-martial on the charges.
Katter testified Barbera radioed in the compromise of their position as an assault by two insurgents, and that he later refused to go along with a report of the incident that Katter was preparing because he believed Barbera was trying to put words in his mouth.
Why Katter waited two years before reporting the incident was the focus of extensive cross-examination by defense attorney David Coombs.
Katter testified that he did not report the killings until after he left the service because he feared retribution from higher-ups. He believed he had covered up or misrepresented what happened with a grenade incident in January 2009, in which several soldiers were wounded.
Katter said he was among many witnesses to the videotaped incident in which Barbera and a lieutenant threw grenades into an empty hole in the ground — described as a “spider hole” where weapons are kept. One grenade exploded before the other, propelling the other grenade out of the hole; it detonated and wounded several. Some were evacuated by medical helicopter, and one severely wounded soldier was awarded a Purple Heart medal.
Poppas, a brigadier general with the 101st Airborne, testified earlier that the hole was one the two officers were going to detonate as part of canal clearing operations. The Purple Heart, he testified, was awarded because the soldier was wounded in the risky operation.
Katter testified that from his position above them, in a gun turret on a truck, he heard Barbera tell the lieutenant to throw a grenade with him because the lieutenant had never used one. Given the presence of so many officers and the resulting injuries, Katter said, he expected some disciplinary action or hearing would occur.
He testified that Barbera told his squad's second-in-command, Sgt. Timothy B. Cole Jr., that it looked like he would get his chance to take over the squad because Barbera said he knew he would be in serious trouble for the incident. Cole later was killed.
When nothing apparently happened from the grenade incident, Katter said, he no longer trusted the chain of command.
Coombs asked whether Katter, as a police officer, knew right from wrong and whether his duties included encouraging others to come forward when they see wrongdoing. Katter, a police officer who enlisted in the Army after 9/11, said he works with domestic violence victims to get them to testify.
Coombs questioned why there were four statements given in April 2009 to Army investigators and why the first statement he gave was about the grenade incident and not the killings. Katter testified that he told investigators about the killings and other incidents, and prepared written statements for each matter in chronological order.
Another member of the Small-Kill Team, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Grimsley, 41, testified that he saw Barbera shoot the youths.
Under questioning by Coombs, Grimsley testified that some of the statements attributed to him by Army investigators were not accurate, including one that Barbera pulled him outside a building for a conversation when the two were back at a base.
Grimsley testified that Barbera inquired as to whether he had spoken with authorities about the shooting. He said Barbera told him that he was not asking him to lie.
But Barbera also told him that another kill team member – now Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Roth – had seen what he thought was a suicide bomb vest on one of the boys.
Roth is expected to testify later in the hearing.