Army reopens case of 2007 murder-suicide that was originally called 'friendly fire'
Stars and Stripes April 19, 2019
AUSTIN, Texas — One gunshot wound to the chest from friendly fire — that’s the story Spc. Kamisha Block’s family was told about her death in Iraq.
Her family had no reason not believe the two soldiers who arrived at their home in Vidor, Texas in August 2007 to break the bad news to them.
But when Block’s body arrived at their local funeral home with five gunshot wounds, including one in the head, her family started asking questions.
“It’s just lie after lie after lie after lie,” said Shonta Block, Kamisha’s sister.
Shonta Block said family members have questioned the Army about her sister, waiting six months to get the report on her Aug. 16, 2007 noncombat death. The family learned while she was deployed at Camp Liberty, Iraq, the 20-year-old soldier was shot to death by her 30-year-old boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Paul Brandon Norris, who then turned his weapon on himself.
“I think the only part that is right in the report is the killing part. The rest of it stunk,” said Shonta Block, 30.
In the nearly 12 years since Kamisha Block’s death, the family has worked with their elected officials to get more information and met with Army officials, but none of it, so far, has led to holding anyone accountable, she said. She’s called the Department of Justice and taken the family’s only copy of the heavily redacted report to the FBI in hope that someone will help her.
In August, Shonta Block, who works with a remodeling company, said they finally got a glimmer of hope when a phone call from the Inspector General of the Army Criminal Investigation Command informed her that the investigation into her sister’s death was reopened.
“I was on a job painting a door,” Shonta Block said about the call. “I said, ‘Oh my God, thank you.’ I couldn’t stop saying it. I just kept saying thank you.”
A spokesperson for the command would not say why they reopened the investigation or what exactly is under scrutiny. Because the case is open, officials also declined to release the initial report.
Though there is no question who killed Kamisha Block, her sister still feels more should be done to hold accountable the people who she believes overlooked the events that led up to her sister’s death. Had leadership intervened when asked or noticed Norris’ behavior, she said, they could have saved Kamisha Block’s life.
“I want them court-martialed,” Shonta Block said, sitting in a booth in a Waffle House in Vidor where her sister worked before enlisting in the Army. “I want them to have to pay for the decisions they made that hurt other people. And not just my sister, but other women and other soldiers.”
Murder and suicide
Kamisha Block and Norris were members of the 401st Military Police Company, deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood, Texas. Because of his higher rank and because Norris was separated, but still married, a relationship between the two was outlawed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Nonetheless, their relationship blossomed at Fort Hood. But once they arrived in Iraq, the relationship became volatile and Block wanted out, Shonta Block said.
The day of the murder, Norris entered into Block’s housing unit and ordered her roommate to leave, according to a law enforcement report. The roommate’s name was redacted from the report summarizing the shooting, but she was identified in a 2009 article in Maxim magazine as Spc. Danielle Jennings. She left, but opened the door when she heard gunshots. Norris pointed his pistol at Jennings, but then turned his gun and shot himself in the head. He’d already shot Block five times in the head and chest, the report stated.
A written statement from a medic on the scene describes the lifesaving measures performed on Block, but that Norris was immediately presumed dead.
Afterward, Block’s photo was placed on a memorial wall on base and a service was held. Then, the unit moved on.
“There was no more mention of it,” said David Womack, a now retired sergeant who served in Block’s platoon during that deployment. “Looking back, it’s eerie how little it was discussed.”
The unit was in Iraq for another year, and more soldiers died. Womack said there was “an uncomfortable comfortability” with all of it. Over time, he looped Block and Norris’s deaths in with the unit’s combat deaths, he said.
Some soldiers and family members close to Block continue to re-examine the days leading up to her death and search for any warning signs that they might have missed.
“She said he never beat her per se, but he was physical,” said James Rattigan, a friend of Block’s deployed to the same Iraq base as a sergeant with the 57th Military Police Company. At night, Rattigan and Block would hang out with other soldiers, but “when we got to that subject [of Norris], she didn’t want to talk about it because she felt like she was trapped.”
Rattigan had known Block from their time serving in Korea, and he always felt a need to look out for her.
“I didn’t know it was at the level of him murdering her, but I was worried he was going to snap one day and hit her,” he said. Rattigan said he mentioned the volatile situation to Block’s platoon sergeant.
“I was told he didn’t know anything about it, but he would look into it. It was three days later when it happened,” he said.
'Perception' of a relationship
A partially redacted document in the criminal investigation report obtained by the Block family states Norris was counseled in July by his platoon sergeant about the perception among members of the unit that there was a relationship between he and Block.
“It has been brought to my attention that you and Spc. Block have been seen by senior leaders in the company late at night talking alone,” wrote the platoon sergeant, whose name has been redacted from the report. “Staff sergeants don’t hang out with specialists. The perception is that you are having an inappropriate relationship with her. You’re a noncommissioned officer, you know as well as I do that perception is reality and if it is perceived that you and Spc. Block are having an inappropriate relationship, then you are.”
The platoon sergeant outlined a plan to move Block to a different squad and should Norris have any business with her, he should consult his chain of command. If the behavior doesn’t stop, the document states the command will be forced to further investigate the matter.
The statement is just part of the 440 pages of the 1,200-page report made available to the Blocks through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Clearly, they knew,” Shonta Block said.
In another document, a statement from a specialist in Block’s squad, the soldier, whose name has also been redacted, described going to his direct leader, who did nothing after learning of the inappropriate relationship. The specialist then took the information to his company first sergeant, apologizing for bringing rumors forward. The soldier stated the first sergeant confirmed that he, too, had seen similar behavior from Norris and Block.
“You don’t walk in the first sergeant’s office unless it’s serious. In this case things where out of hand,” Shonta Block said. “I also believe they did the bare minimum of their jobs and live off the word perception.”
Shonta Block said she knew from conversations with her sister that Kamisha Block was struggling to end her relationship with Norris in Iraq. The family had met Norris during a short visit to Vidor.
“My parents went to dinner with him and said he didn’t talk very much,” Shonta Block said.
When they first learned of Kamisha Block’s death, family members were not told Norris was her killer, Shonta Block said.
Amanda Simmons was a childhood friend of Kamisha Block’s, and the two enlisted in the Army at about the same time.
“She was the one who got me to join the Army,” said Simmons, who served eight years and is now a criminal investigator for the state attorney’s office in Pensacola, Fla. “Her initial interest, being from a small town, you want to get out and experience life and experience new things. She was devoted to her country and wanted to fight for something that meant something to her.”
Simmons attended Block’s funeral in the days leading up to her own deployment to Iraq with a psychological operations task force out of Fort Bragg, N.C., and she knew of the discrepancies between what the family said they were told about the death and the physical wounds on the body.
“I knew that, but it wasn’t my place to say anything. I knew there were two people who had tried to save her life,” she said. Simmons visited Camp Liberty to meet those soldiers.
“When I got there, it was an automatic lie. I knew it was a lie,” she said.
Simmons said she met the medic, who Simmons did not name, who worked on Block, and the soldier described cutting Block’s bulletproof vest from her body to tend to the one gunshot wound. Simmons said she knew there were multiple wounds that might have been stopped had Block been wearing a vest.
“I said, ‘Don’t lie to me,’” Simmons said. “I said, ‘I went to her funeral and spoke to her family. Don’t disrespect me and don’t disrespect her.’ It was very awkward.”
The medic held firm to the story despite Simmons accusing her of lying. Simmons said she was “caught off guard” by the incident, but it fueled questions she had about what really happened in the wake of Block’s death.
With a renewed investigation into the case, Simmons believes it’s the command that should be investigated. Aside from whether commanders knew about a relationship, the Block family, friends and some fellow soldiers of the unit said they believe Norris was struggling to control his emotions on deployment and should have had his mental health evaluated.
Some soldiers who have spoken to the Block family described Norris on deployment as hot-tempered, impulsive and dangerous, Shonta Block said.
“It should be open to a new case into the negligence of those high-ranking officials,” Simmons said. “There are policies, procedures and laws when comes to mental health. If (Norris) is crying out for help … he should have never been carrying a firearm. They should have taken his firearm and kept him at his office.”
Norris, who is from Cullman, Ala., was on his third deployment and going through a divorce. He was also approaching the five-year anniversary of the death of two of his sisters, who were killed in a car accident on Dec. 22, 2002, according to a Tuscaloosa News article written in 2007 following his death.
His family could not be reached for comment.
“If the powers that be can look into the situation and really connect with the people involved and determine that something should have happened that didn’t, then they should be held accountable,” Womack said.
He wasn’t close with either Block or Norris, because he was in a different squad, but he said he had heard the rumors and speculation of a relationship.
“It’s a case of total complacency. [Unit leaders] were so out of touch with what was happening with subordinates that it is criminal,” Womack said.
It wasn’t just leadership’s lack of noticing the prohibited relationship between the two, he said. Womack didn’t know Norris well, but it was clear even to him that something was going on with him, he said.
“[Norris] was very aggressive, very quick to scream and yell and get hot about stuff that was not that big of a deal,” he said. “I avoided him.”
On the day of the murder, Womack said he was filling in for a soldier in Norris’ squad. During their mission briefing, Norris, who was not assigned to take part in the mission that day for a reason that Womack doesn’t know, arrived dressed in his gear. Womack said the platoon leader told Norris that he was not going with them.
“[The platoon leader] had to physically hold him back,” said Womack, who was on this third deployment at that time. “It was right in front of soldiers and I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, I’ve never seen a situation like this.’ I was just in awe.”
When Womack heard about the shooting, he said, “I was in shock [Norris] had access to a weapon.”
Reviewing the investigation
Shonta Block began working on her sister’s case about two years ago — picking it up after her mother burned out on it.
“It’s too much depression when you can’t get answers,” Shonta Block said.
She said she’s spoken to at least 20 soldiers who are willing to share information about the days leading up to her sister’s death. She said the information ranges from being asked to destroy paperwork in the hours immediately following the murder-suicide to knowing that leadership was made aware of the inappropriate relationship and Norris’ anger and did nothing.
The case was reviewed once before, beginning in December 2008, at the request of Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. The Blocks live in an area of southeast Texas that was previously part of Brady’s district. In a letter sent to his office in 2010 from the Defense Department’s inspector general, officials said they reviewed and evaluated the thoroughness of the initial investigation, finding it was sufficient. Investigators interviewed 69 people, some of whom are noted as having discrepancies between their first statements and their new ones.
At that time, the Block family asked why no toxicology test was conducted on Norris, because of speculation that he was abusing steroids. The inspector general report stated a posthumous toxicology test was not possible and therefore never done, because there wasn’t enough urine available to sample at Norris’s time of death. The report further stated criminal investigators could not substantiate rumors of Norris’ steroid use.
Despite the new investigation, Shonta Block isn’t stopping her efforts. She’s continuing to send letters to influential members of Congress in hopes a lawmaker will join the fight with her.
“I know (quitting is) what they want. That’s what they’ll never get,” Shonta Block said. “I’m a little different. I ride motorcycles and street bikes and I don’t give up. Nothing really scares me. That’s the only reason I’ve made it this far.”