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Soldier gets 15 years for Baumholder crime spree

The second story exterior of Baumholder, Germany’s city government building was charred after a fire in August. A military judge sentenced Pfc. Zachary Watson to 15 years in prison for his part in a crime spree that included the fire.

TERRY BOYD / S&S

GI pleads guilty to robberies, drugs, setting Rathaus on fire

By TERRY BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2006

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Pfc. Zachary Watson is a hard-luck kid, an exceptionally intelligent young soldier with great leadership skills, trying to escape his wildly dysfunctional family.

Zachary Watson is a compulsive criminal, moving merrily between strong-arming taxi drivers, casually stealing government property and dealing a smorgasbord of dope including MDMA, or Ecstasy, and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Hard-luck kid or hardcore criminal, Zachary Watson will do hard time for years as part of his guilty plea under an agreement. Watson is the first to go to prison after a 2005 crime spree by local soldiers that climaxed in the Rathaus fire.

Had he drawn the maximum sentences for each offense, Watson was looking at 104 years in prison, by the judge’s and prosecutor’s calculations. Instead, Col. James Pohl, the military judge, gave him 15 years. Under a plea agreement, Watson could slash five years off that by testifying in a number of related trials, and by staying out of trouble in prison. And he could serve less than 10 years under military early-release guidelines, according to Army attorneys.

Final statements by the defense and prosecution described two very different people who had arrived at the same day of reckoning.

Watson is “a compulsive criminal,” said Capt. Alison Gregoire, the prosecutor. When Watson decided drug dealing “was better suited to his laid-back lifestyle,” he bolted from his unit and started on a crime wave that caused great damage to the Army, to Baumholder and to German-American relations, Gregoire said.

She asked Pohl to “send a very clear message” to all soldiers about the consequences of shirking their duty by giving Watson 20 years.

Watson’s defense attorney, Capt. Jacqueline Tubbs, argued that Watson is an intelligent candidate for rehabilitation who has had few chances in life, born to a family that is “dysfunctional, to put it mildly.”

Ultimately, it was up to Pohl to decide, and the judge guided Watson through his confession to multiple charges to “make sure you’re not tricked into copping to something you didn’t do.”

Watson’s detailed, riveting four-hour confession was given in crisp response and articulate phrasings. Watson described:

  • Stealing computers at two H.D. Smith Barracks motor pools to help a friend raise rent money;
  • Organizing a group of soldiers and German friends to rob brothel patrons in Idar-Oberstein, about 15 miles from Baumholder;
  • Robbing taxi driver Helmut Jung after the brothel plan fizzled because of slow, weeknight traffic;
  • Organizing a lucrative drug operation that involved buying psilocybin, an hallucinogenic mushroom, wholesale in the Netherlands, then retailing the drug in Baumholder;
  • Setting fire to Baumholder’s city hall Aug. 11, during a binge that preceded a plan by him and Spc. Samuel Bell III to turn themselves in for being absent without leave from their unit, Company A, 40th Engineer (Combat) Battalion.

Watson and Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis Wheatley, Watson’s half brother, told of growing up in Arkansas amid a downward spiral of drug abuse and sexual abuse, with Watson ultimately turning in his father for sexually abusing one of his daughters.

The Army, at least for a year, became Watson’s refuge. Capt. Brian Looney, former 40th Engineers executive officer, testified that Watson was an indispensable parts clerk whose performance was “stellar.” In fact, Looney said, in a unit with low morale and maintenance problems, “everyone wanted something from him.”

Then, Watson went to — drugs and crime — and the results were catastrophic.

The Rathaus fire not only caused about $1 million in damage, the loss of records and contracts meant Baumholder officials could only offer emergency services for weeks, said Werner Bauerfeld, chief of staff to Mayor Volker Pees.

During Watson’s own recounting Tuesday, many of the details of the five-week crime spree that swept Baumholder last summer came to light for the first time.

The odyssey began, Watson testified, when he decided to go AWOL on July 17, worried that urinalysis would reveal his drug use. Watson quickly collected a cast of Germans and at least eight other soldiers, some of whom were also AWOL.

The crime spree began when a German man with whom he was using Ecstasy told him that he would lose his apartment unless he could raise some money. That led to Watson, the German man and Pvt. Brett Brown, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, breaking into the 1-6 motor pool and stealing computers, a crime they repeated at the 47th FSB.

Later, when Brown and Bell needed money, the group came up with the plan to rob brothel patrons, which morphed into the robbery of the taxi driver. The robbery only yielded about 20 euros a piece.

Bell and Watson also began driving to the Netherlands, where drugs such as psilocybin and hashish are available legally. They were, Watson said, trips “strictly for business,” with the duo repackaging the drugs for sale to American soldiers and German customers, often tripling their investments.

While the money was good, the fugitive life was becoming a burden, Watson testified. He and Bell had decided to turn themselves in, but not without a final binge. After drinking a huge volume of alcohol the evening of Aug. 10, there was a “black hole” until the next morning, Watson said.

He conceded he knew money was stored in the Rathaus, adding that he has a vague recollection of throwing “something red” through the Rathaus window. He believes he kicked and punched a computer, with the sparks perhaps causing the fire. But he testified he has no clear memory of what happened.

All he remembers is walking past the smoldering building just before he was arrested the morning of Aug. 11, Watson said.

“I remember thinking, ‘What happened there?’ ”


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