Soldier sentenced for 2009 Iraq killings; Beaufort native one of the victims

POSTED: 2:00 PM May 03 2013   UPDATED: 10:57 AM May 17 2013
Sgt. John Russell

An Army sergeant has been sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2009 killings of five fellow service members at a combat stress clinic in Iraq. One of the victims was a native of Beaufort.

A military judge, Army Col. David Conn, found Sgt. John Russell guilty of premeditated murder on Monday and imposed the sentence Thursday. The only other possible penalty for Russell would have been life in prison with the possibility of release.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said late Thursday that Russell would be transferred soon to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

The 14-year veteran from Sherman, Texas, had previously pleaded guilty to unpremeditated murder in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table. Under the agreement, prosecutors were allowed to try to prove to an Army judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state that the killings were premeditated.

According to investigators, Russell murdered four U.S. soldiers and Navy Cmdr. Charles Springle, who grew up in Beaufort. The killings happened in 2009 at Camp Liberty, a mental health clinic in Baghdad, Iraq.

Russell, , said he was in a "rage" when he gunned down the five victims in May 2009 at the Camp Liberty Combat Stress Center near Baghdad.

"I wanted the pain to stop," he testified during a previous hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Russell was nearing the end of his third tour when his behavior changed, members of his unit testified. They said he became more distant in the days before the attack on May 11, and seemed paranoid that his unit was trying to end his career.

On May 8, Russell sought help at a combat stress clinic at Camp Stryker, where his unit was located. On May 10, Russell was referred to the Camp Liberty clinic, where he received counseling and prescription medication.

The following day witnesses saw Russell crying and talking about hurting himself. He went back to the Camp Liberty clinic, where a doctor told him he needed to get help or he would hurt himself. Russell tried to surrender to military police to lock him up so he wouldn't hurt himself or others, witnesses said.

Military prosecutors say Russell left the clinic and later returned with a rifle he took from his unit headquarters and began firing.

Russell said he wanted to hurt a doctor who he thought had earlier encouraged him to commit suicide. He didn't find that doctor, but still carried out the shooting.

In addition to Beaufort native Charles Springle, four Army service members were murdered:  Pfc. Michael Edward Yates Jr., 19, of Federalsburg, Md.; Dr. Matthew Houseal, of Amarillo, Texas; Sgt. Christian E. Bueno-Galdos, 25, of Paterson, N.J.; and Spc. Jacob D. Barton, 20, of Lenox, Mo.

Of the dead, Russell had interacted only with Springle, who tried to help him a couple of days before the attack.

Yates raised a gun at him after Russell killed Springle and Houseal, but Yates dropped the gun and ran.

Yates "ran and I ran after him, and I shot him," Russell said.

Yates' mother, Shawna Van Blargan, joined Springle's wife and son in court. They held each other tightly as Russell talked about killing their family members.

Van Blargan cried out when Russell described killing her son. She left the courtroom.

Russell also remembered finding Barton hiding under a table. Russell shot him in the head.

Bueno-Galdos tried to grab Russell's rifle. Russell testified he shot Bueno-Galdos in the chest, then shot him once more while he lay face down on the ground.

Two evaluations presented during a 2009 hearing said Russell suffered from severe depression with psychotic features and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. A March 2011 evaluation said the major depression with psychotic features was in partial remission.

The Tacoma News Tribune reported Russell entered his plea while flanked by his two military defense attorneys and his civilian lawyer.

Some family members of Russell's victims have expressed frustration  that it has taken four years to bring the case to trial.