Witness says soldier admitted to Baumholder town hall arson
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — A 1st Armored Division soldier accused of taking part in a crime spree this summer, from robbing a taxi cab driver to setting fire to the city’s town hall, appeared Thursday at a pretrial hearing.
Eight witnesses testified during the hearing to determine whether Pfc. Zachery Watson should face a court-martial.
Watson, a member of the Baumholder-based 40th Engineers (Combat) Battalion, faces a long list of charges. In addition to damaging Baumholder’s government building, he is accused of robbing a German taxi driver, stealing government computers, using and selling drugs and going absent without leave.
The fire, which caused more than $1.2 million in damage, is the most serious of a series of crimes suspected of involving American soldiers in town since the division returned from Iraq in July 2003.
German law enforcement authorities investigating the rise in bad behavior turned over jurisdiction of some of the cases, including Watson’s, to the U.S. Army.
During Thursday’s hearing, one soldier testified that Watson bragged about burning down the building Aug. 11 and said, “Dude, I think I just burned down the Rathaus” — the German word for city hall.
About an hour earlier that day, Pfc. Michael Halman said he saw Watson inside the government building after a night of drinking. The window to the building was smashed and he could see Watson inside with a lighter.
“I saw him clearly,” Halman said.
Army Criminal Investigation Command Special Agent Alex Alvarado testified that Watson told him he was so drunk the night of the fire he didn’t recall much of what happened other than being inside the building.
During the four-hour Article 32 hearing, other witnesses testified that Watson was one of four people who took part in the robbery of a taxi cab driver in Baumholder this past summer, stealing 150 euros.
Witnesses also accused Watson of using and selling drugs and taking part in a scheme to break into two base buildings, steal computer equipment and reap a profit from the sale of the items.
A military Article 32 hearing is most closely compared to a civilian grand jury, except the accused is present and can cross-examine witnesses.
The investigating officer can recommend a court-martial or to have the charges dropped. The 1st Armored Division commander, Maj. Gen. Doug Robinson, will make the final decision on whether Watson will stand trial.