Army says gangs not a threat to community
DARMSTADT, Germany — A day after citing safety concerns and requesting the name of witnesses be withheld from articles on a gang-related murder case in Kaiserslautern, Army officials Wednesday said the case is an “isolated incident” and the gang members pose no danger to the community.
“It must be emphasized that the potential threat involves only those individuals allegedly involved in the incident or persons having knowledge of the specific incident,” said Lt. Col. Liz Hibner, a U.S. Army Europe spokeswoman.
“USAREUR does not have a ‘gang problem.’ However, we are aware there are some individuals who may associate with and support gang ideology. The investigation … has not identified any generalized gang-related safety or security problems in the Kaiserslautern Military Community or elsewhere in USAREUR,” she said.
One such alleged individual, Spc. Bobby D. Morrissette, walked unescorted out of a Kleber Kaserne shoppette during a break Wednesday morning in his Article 32 investigation on murder charges. Morrissette made a quick remark to a Stars and Stripes reporter standing nearby, then walked off alone.
Despite the reported safety concerns, none of the suspects in the case is being held in pretrial confinement, nor are witnesses in protective custody.
A night earlier, the top Army public affairs officer at the Pentagon called Stars and Stripes editors in Washington, saying the situation is so dangerous for all involved that the Army was requesting the newspaper withhold the name of the person testifying against the accused.
According to military officials, Morrissette and at least eight other soldiers are being investigated or have been charged in the July 2005 beating death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson.
Chris Grey, the Criminal Investigation Command spokesman in Virginia, declined to comment on any measures being taken for witnesses or suspects in the case.
One of the key witnesses in the Morrissette Article 32 has now gone absent without leave after giving a sworn statement against the defendant, a defense attorney said Wednesday in court.
Gang problems within Johnson’s unit — the 66th Transportation Company — were apparently suspected well before his death. According to testimony Wednesday, an Army investigation was launched into gang activity within the unit while it was deployed to Iraq between January 2004 and February 2005.
Results from that investigation have not been released.
On Wednesday morning, Brig. Gen. Scott G. West, commander of the 21st Theater Support Command, declined to be interviewed for this story. Because he is the convening authority for Morrissette’s and related Article 32s, it would be inappropriate at this time for him to comment, West said through his secretary.
Lt. Col. Mechelle B. Hale, the Kaiserslautern installation commander, could not be reached for comment.
An e-mail directly to the U.S. Army Europe commander, Gen. David McKiernan, asking for comment on the situation went unanswered.
The German police in Kaiserslautern have not received reports or complaints about gang activity in the area. Other than the Johnson case, a Germany police official said, they have had no conversations with the military about gang violence.
Outside the courtroom, several soldiers said they haven’t noticed anything in the military community that indicates the Army, at least in the Kaiserslautern area, has a major problem with gangs.
Army Spc. Vinnette Giscombe, assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern headquarters, doubts gang activity is as prevalent in the military as some might think. Whatever passes as gang activity in the Army isn’t in the same league as what goes down on the streets of Chicago, she said.
“I grew up on the Southside of Chicago,” Giscombe said. “I haven’t seen anything here that is remotely close to how it is back there.”
When Giscombe arrived earlier this year, she said gang activity was mentioned in one of the standard briefings that newcomers receive. Soldiers were warned about possible gang activity, recruitment and affiliations, but the warnings seemed to carry no greater emphasis than other cautionary reminders, such as road safety and the perils of drinking and driving.
Many of the 15 people approached for this article knew only the basics of the Johnson case. Several mentioned the $50,000 reward for information and the fact that a murder had occurred on their installation, but by and large people appeared to know little about the case.
However, one soldier said that ties to gang activity are probably more common among younger soldiers than people would think.
“There are a lot of former gang members in the Army,” said the 23-year-old specialist, who asked that his name not be used. “But that doesn’t mean they are still ‘banging.’ It might be an isolated incident, what happened here.”
Witness intimidation can be a serious issue in prosecuting any violent offenders, but prosecuting gang-related crimes can make authorities especially nervous, experts say.
Asking a newspaper not to print the names of those involved in a hearing is rarely done, and not that useful, said Steven Jansen, director of the National Center for Community Prosecution, part of the National District Attorney’s Association in Washington, D.C.
“If the gang wanted to find out the individuals’ names, they could just be in the courtroom,” Jansen said.
But Jansen said that asking the press to omit the names was unusual.
“I’ve never had it done in any of my cases, personally,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Kevin Dougherty, Steve Mraz, Nancy Montgomery and Bryan Mitchell contributed to this report.