Article 32 hearing begins for second GI accused in Rathaus fire
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — An Article 32 investigation began for a second defendant charged in connection with the fire this summer that destroyed a section of Baumholder’s government center.
Testimony Tuesday at H.D. Smith Barracks didn’t tie Spc. Samuel Bell, 22, directly to the fire. But it did connect him to a Baumholder subculture that included a small number of AWOL soldiers and Germans stealing, robbing, drugging and partying. Bell and Pfc. Zachary Watson are two of nine soldiers that are facing charges.
That group contributed to a mini-crime wave this year, culminating in the Rathaus fire, which caused about $1.5 million in damage and strained U.S.-German relations.
Bell is facing 11 charges including:
Being an accessory after the fact to the arson for pulling Pfc. Zachary Watson out of the Rathaus sometime before it caught fire on the morning of Aug. 11. Watson, according to Tuesday’s testimony, was in the basement of the Rathaus.Conspiring to commit robbery for robbing a taxi driver. Taxi driver Helmut Jung testified that Bell sat in the front passenger’s seat, punching him during a robbery in which another American choked him from the rear and took his wallet.Making a false statement to Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, agents, saying he wasn’t involved in the taxi robbery.Being away from his post without leave for 12 days.Distributing and/or using drugs including psilocybin, a hallucinogenic mushroom, and Ecstasy.Watson’s Article 32 was held Oct. 20.
Key prosecution testimony Tuesday came from two soldiers, Pvt. Christopher Burt and Spc. Mike Halman, who proceeded after being read their rights against self-incrimination by Capt. Daniel Sennott, the investigating officer.
Halman testified that he was with Bell and Watson in downtown Baumholder the night of the fire. Watson was extremely intoxicated, while Bell remained with a group and was not drinking heavily. At some point, Watson disappeared, and as the group searched for him, they heard glass breaking at the Rathaus. After spotting Watson in the basement, the group watched as Bell tried unsuccessfully to pull Watson out.
Burt testified that Bell had given him psilocybin in lieu of 40 euros Bell owed him. Both Halman and Burt stated that Bell used drugs.
Defense attorney Capt. Justin Evison tried to link Burt’s testimony to his plea deal, and Burt conceded he was trying to get a discharge. “So you get a discharge for cooperation. Can you read between the lines and figure it out?” Evison asked
“No,” Burt said, quietly.
Bell — who consulted frequently with Evison and co-counsel Capt. James Ford and took copious notes — appeared in Battle Dress Uniform, purged of all rank, unit patches and tabs, including the American flag traditionally worn on the right shoulder.
Evison and Ford also targeted CID’s investigation of Bell. Bell said he asked to talk to a lawyer, but CID agents didn’t summon legal counsel. After sitting for hours in cells at the CID offices, Bell decided to make a statement to Special Agent Dwight Ward.
Ward and Special Agent Curtis Vaughn, Baumholder CID commander, both testified that once a suspect asks for an attorney, CID agents halt questioning, then turn the suspect over to command, at which point the person may be allowed to speak to counsel.
Evison also asked CID agents if they used unfair tactics during interviews with his client — whether their methods crossed the line beyond adversarial to threatening.
Questioning can be confrontational when stories don’t match, Vaughn replied. “But there’s no point in leaning on [suspects]. A statement that’s coerced is worthless.”
Evison and Ford asked Sennott for a recess to examine the documents submitted just before the Article 32, and to consult with Bell. Sennott granted the request, giving defense until Dec. 22 to set a date to reconvene.