Fayetteville, N.C. — A nine-soldier crime ring that began in Afghanistan has been tied to the 2012 shooting death of a well-respected Fort Bragg officer, according to federal court documents.
Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale was shot and killed during a unit safety briefing on June 28, 2012.
At the time, officials were quiet on what could have driven his killer, Spc. Ricky Elder, to shoot Tisdale and then turn the gun on himself.
The pair had deployed together with the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade's Special Troops Battalion. And Elder was facing a court-martial for stealing a $1,700 tool kit. But there was no clear connection.
But documents related to two criminal cases that ended last year paint a more complete picture of the events leading up to Tisdale's death on a hot Fort Bragg afternoon.
"It is my opinion, that had these larcenies not occurred, Lt. Col. Tisdale would still be with us today."
Capt. Aaron E. Adams, now stationed at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany, wrote those words in a letter included in the case file for Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kurt Allen Bennett.
Bennett is a helicopter pilot who in 2012 served as brigade tactical operations officer and then led the brigade's enabler security team.
He's also been convicted of stealing government property and was sentenced last year to three years in a federal prison, although he isn't due to report to prison until June 30, 2014.
According to court documents, Bennett and another soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Alan Walker, conspired together to steal military equipment that included vehicle motors, tools and electronics while deployed from 2010 to 2011.
The pair, working with several other soldiers, would hide the equipment in shipping containers and send it back to the United States.
Once back at Fort Bragg, the property was distributed among the nine-soldier crime ring. According to an indictment, tens of thousands of dollars in equipment was stolen, including an $11,500 ATV and a nearly $9,000 cargo trailer.
One of those soldiers, according to the documents, was Elder.
Elder was a troubled soldier from the small town of Hutchinson, Kan., according to officials.
As a juvenile, he was charged with burglary, battery and possession of marijuana during separate incidents.
As a soldier, he was charged with assault causing injury in 2007, drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident in 2009 and simple assault in 2011.
In Facebook posts, some dating just an hour before Tisdale's death, Elder said he had been diagnosed with dementia and expressed bitterness in connection to his pending court-martial.
"So one week before I was supposed to get out I was charged with these damn tools," one post read. "So instead of a ($)20,000 severance I get to loose all the benefits and everything I've worked so hard for."
Writing about the impact of the thefts, another former 525th officer, Maj. Dallen R. Arny, again linked the crimes to Tisdale's death.
"The effects of (Chief Warrant Officer 3) Bennett's behavior on the command were catastrophic," Arny wrote. "One of his co-conspirators murdered Lt. Col. Tisdale. Lt. Col. Tisdale would be alive today if Ricky Elder didn't receive a toolbox from (Chief Warrants Officer 3) Bennett."
According to court documents, the thefts were discovered in August 2011 following an inventory of equipment.
At the time, one set of night vision goggles was unaccounted for, according to Adams, who served as commander for the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade's Headquarters and Headquarters Company.
The theft of the equipment shut down the unit for about 30 days, according to Adams. During that time, his soldiers stayed late nights accounting for equipment.
The investigation revealed that one soldier was trying to sell some of the equipment in the civilian market, Adams said. And eventually, nine soldiers were linked to the ring that was formed in Afghanistan.
Those soldiers were removed from their positions and escorted to and from law enforcement for multiple questionings.
The fallout from the investigations included a loss of trust and an increase in discipline issues, a drop in morale and a loss in unit pride, Adams wrote.
"Soldiers began to distance themselves from everyone and everything that was a part of the unit," he said. "It became a struggle to keep it all together and keep the machine rolling along."
Arny said Bennett's prosecution took years, giving the appearance that "officers can commit crimes and get away with it."
"That appearance destroyed good order and discipline within the unit, and in one case an outstanding officer was killed," he said.
According to Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Verschueren, another former member of the 525th, the thefts resulted in hours of lost productivity that "adversely impacted" the company's ability to train for an expected deployment to Kosovo and to prepare two subordinate units for combat operations in Afghanistan.
Ten months after the thefts were first discovered, the stress and frustration came to a head on June 28, 2012.
Then, Elder pulled a gun during the otherwise routine safety briefing. He shot Tisdale and another soldier, then shot himself.
"I am not blaming (Chief Warrant Officer 3) Bennett for the death of Lt. Col. Tisdale; however, I do believe that the larcenies were the cause that lead to the shooting of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale," Adams wrote. "It is my opinion, that had these larcenies not occured, Lt. Col. Tisdale would still be with us today."
Verschueren said Tisdale was a former deputy commander of the brigade who was "widely respected for his experience and leadership."
Nearly 200 soldiers witnessed his killing, he said, causing untold psychological trauma.
"The damage and trauma caused by that incident on the Special Troops Battalion, the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, Lt. Col. Tisdale's family, and those who served with Lt. Col. Tisdale may never fully heal," Verschueren said. "There were nearly 200 soldiers present at the safety brief, and many of them were eyewitnesses to a murder-suicide that never should have happened, but for (Chief Warrant Officer 3) Bennett's actions which set off a chain of events leading up to that tragic day."
Bennett pleaded guilty to his crimes in June 2013 and was sentenced in November, according to online court records.
His conspirator, Walker, accepted a plea agreement in November 2012 and was sentenced in September 2013 to one and one-half years in prison.
Walker reported to federal prison in December.
Tisdale, meanwhile, has been repeatedly honored by his family, friends and former colleagues since his death in 2012.
At least two runs have been held in his honor, with participants on Fort Bragg, in Texas and spread across the world.
At his funeral in College Station, Texas, Tisdale was remembered as someone who never shirked responsibility, a true Texan who put his all into what he did.
Tisdale thrived in the military and became a well-liked, highly respected commander.
He served four different combat deployments. But the father and husband was felled on the home front, a fact that caused further anguish to his family.
After his death, Tisdale's mother, Linda, said she could only scream.
"I was in shock," she said from a diner in Texas shortly after Tisdale's funeral. "When they're deployed, you never know what's going to happen. But he was in the U.S. He was home.
"I keep saying, 'I'm going to wake up from this bad dream. Nothing's changed yet.'"
A week after his death, Tisdale would be honored by hundreds of strangers.
Hundreds of students at Texas A&M, his alma mater, gathered outside the church where Tisdale's funeral was held to block of a possible protest by Westboro Baptist Church.
Many of those same students traveled to the Aggie Field of Honor on the far side of College Station to again stand in support with the family.
The procession to the graveyard was marked by dozens of students lining grassy shoulders, waving flags. A group of construction workers stopped working on a new post office to line up and pay their respects, their helmets covering their hearts.
"Folks, war is not always overseas," Rusty Davis, a Tisdale family friend, said during the funeral. "Sometimes, it's here."