Defense, prosecution rest in case of Marine accused in musician's death
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Among the many charges against a Marine accused of killing a Romanian rock star during an auto accident last December, negligent homicide remains “the big enchilada” in the case, the investigating officer said Tuesday.
As both the defense and prosecution wrapped up their cases, investigating officer Marine Lt. Col. Stewart Couch expressed concerns over possible duplications in the charges against Staff Sgt. Christopher R. VanGoethem, as well as the evidence for some of those accusations.
The real heart of the case, Couch stressed, is “the nature of that intersection,” and the role it played in the accident that occurred Dec. 4 about 4:30 a.m. local time.
“Can we all agree [negligent homicide] is the big enchilada here?” Couch asked both teams.
VanGoethem, 32, is a former commander of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.
He is facing charges that stem from an accident that killed 50-year-old Teofil Peter, veteran producer and bassist for the rock band Compact.
During the two days of the hearing, Couch heard extensive — and conflicting — testimony about the accident scene from a Virginia State trooper and crash expert and a Naval Criminal Investigation Service agent.
But as the case closed, lead prosecutor Marine Capt. Charles Miracle told Couch the configuration of the intersection didn’t matter.
“Whatever the intersection is, good or bad … the fact doesn’t change that he’s been through there before,” Miracle said.
Chief defender Marine Maj. Phillip Stackhouse disagreed.
“At minimum, [the intersection’s design] would be [a] mitigating” factor if VanGoethem were found guilty of the charge, Stackhouse said. “But I don’t think you can even get there.”
Stackhouse noted that according to earlier testimony from the crash expert, VanGoethem was driving below the posted speed limit at the time of the crash, while the cab was driving above it.
“The fact that he wasn’t speeding should carry a lot of weight,” Stackhouse said.
Couch said he has “serious concerns” over the government’s “drunk and disorderly” charge against VanGoethem, which involved an earlier auto accident March 1, 2004, when the staff sergeant ran his personal automobile, a 1967 Trebant, into a tree.
In addition to two statements from U.S. Embassy personnel, the prosecution’s case was based on sworn statements by three Romanian security employees at the Embassy, not blood alcohol measurements.
In their statements submitted to the court, none of the five witnesses to VanGoethem’s behavior after the crash concluded that VanGoethem was drunk, although some said they suspected he had been drinking.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence,” Couch said.
Couch said there is “absolutely no evidence” that VanGoethem’s alleged adultery had proved “prejudicial to good order and discipline” and discredited the Marine Corps, as the staff sergeant has been charged.
Couch said he “did kind of a double-take on those solicitation charges,” which allege VanGoethem asked his mistress to erase e-mails and, later, to lie about their whereabouts on Dec. 3 and 4, 2004.
Couch noted that Ilse Wentworth, the woman in question, had not been located in time to testify.
“We didn’t hear from her,” Couch said. “That’s evidence that’s completely lacking.”
Couch also said he also found the prosecution’s evidence that VanGoethem viewed pornography on his government computer “fairly scant.”
Couch isn’t expected to release his recommendations regarding VanGoethem to the convening authority, Col. William E. Rizzio, commander of the Marine Security Guard Battalion at Quantico, for at least another two weeks, according to a Quantico spokesman, Marine 2nd Lt. Brian Donnelly.
Rizzio has the option of adopting Crouch’s recommendations, or mandating his own treatment of the case.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Romanian television outlet Antena 1, Peter’s son, Teofil Peter Jr., said he likely will seek emotional damages from the Marine, though has not specified any dollar amount.
In his closing argument, Stackhouse asked “for a recommendation that [VanGoethem’s] punishment be handled administratively, or handled in a lower form” than a general court martial, the equivalent of a criminal trial.
“We believe there is only some evidence for a few of these” charges, Stackhouse said.
Stripes editor Pat Dickson contributed to this report from Washington.