Change of venue denied for soldier accused in Baumholder crime spree
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — A judge has said no to moving the court-martial of a 1st Armored Division soldier accused of being one of two ringleaders in last summer’s Baumholder crime spree.
Citing pretrial publicity and undue command influence, Capt. Justin Evison asked presiding judge Col. James Pohl on Thursday to move the court-martial of Spc. Samuel Bell III from Baumholder to Heidelberg.
Bell, 22, is charged with a number of crimes including being away from his unit, 40th Engineers (Combat) Battalion, without leave; conspiracy to rob a German taxi driver; using and distributing drugs; and being an accessory after the fact in the August 2005 fire that destroyed a section of Baumholder’s city hall, causing about $1 million in damages.
Bell’s friend, Pfc. Zachary Watson, was sentenced to 15 years in jail on Feb. 8 after pleading guilty to drug dealing, robbery and causing the fire.
Watson originally faced a maximum sentence of 104 years for a variety of charges including robbery, selling hallucinogenic mushrooms and Ecstasy, and causing a fire that did about $1 million in damage to Baumholder’s government center.
At least eight other soldiers are charged in the crime wave.
Evison said that articles in Stars and Stripes about the crime wave quoted Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker and might prejudice a panel drawn from Baumholder.
Tucker is the 1st AD’s second-highest ranking officer, “with command say over everyone in the whole 1 AD community,” except Maj. Gen. Fred Robinson, division commander, Evison said. Tucker’s influence in Heidelberg is not as great “and people don’t even know who he is there,” Evison added.
Baumholder, where Tucker is assistant division commander–support, is home to the 2nd Brigade and Division Artillery. Heidelberg is headquarters for higher commands — V Corps and U.S. Army Europe.
Pohl called Evison’s complaint “a hybrid,” a mixture of concerns, “but I understand. Your complaint is, any panel members who come from here are so saturated with pretrial publicity and General Tucker’s remarks that Specialist Bell can’t receive a fair trial?”
But, the judge countered, “your wrong is not cured by your suggested remedy.”
People “read Stripes all over Europe,” he said. A change of venue would not guarantee a panel that hadn’t read the articles, Pohl said, calling that portion of the motion “irrelevant.”
Moreover, he asked, don’t commanders “have a responsibility to give some response” in a high-profile case? The crime wave and city hall fire caused strains on German-U.S. relations, German officials told Stars and Stripes at the time.
“You keep saying General Tucker owns everyone except General Robinson. Isn’t this a command-influence issue?”
Defense can address the undue command-influence issue during voir dire, the jury-selection process that allows both defense and prosecutors to eliminate jurors they believe to be biased, Pohl said.
Bell’s trial is scheduled to reconvene next Friday in Baumholder.
Meanwhile, Pvt. Jeffrey Gibson, of Company A, 40th Engineer (Combat) Battalion, pleaded guilty to making a false official statement, and using and distributing a controlled substance. He was part of a group of Baumholder-based 1st Armored Division soldiers linked in testimony to Watson and Bell III.
Gibson was sentenced to three months, reduced to the lowest enlisted rank and will receive a bad-conduct discharge upon completion of his sentence.