JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldiers floated a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.
For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, hatched the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The "kill team" activated the plan.
Two more slayings would follow. Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged three slayings in Kandahar province from January to May.
A review of military court documents and interviews with people familiar with the investigation suggest the killings were committed essentially for sport.
The accused soldiers, through attorneys and family members, deny wrongdoing.
The Army has scheduled pretrial hearings in the case this fall at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home of the Stryker brigade.
According to statements given to investigators, members of the unit — 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment — began talking about forming a "kill team" in December, shortly after receiving a new member, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont.
Gibbs, whom some defendants have described as the ringleader, confided to his new mates that it had been easy for him to get away with "stuff" when he served in Iraq in 2004, according to the statements.
The first opportunity presented itself Jan. 15 in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province. Members of the 3rd Platoon were providing perimeter security for a meeting between Army officers and tribal elders in the village of La Mohammed Kalay.
According to charging documents, an Afghan named Gul Mudin began walking toward the soldiers. As he approached, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, threw a grenade on the ground, records show, to create the illusion that the soldiers were under attack.
Pfc. Andrew Holmes, 19, from Boise, Idaho, saw the grenade and fired his weapon at Mudin, according to charging documents. The grenade exploded, prompting other soldiers to open fire on the villager as well, killing him.
Morlock, Holmes and Gibbs each have been charged with murder in the shooting. Attorneys for Morlock and Gibbs did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney for Holmes, said his client "was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
On Feb. 14, Christopher Winfield, a former Marine from Cape Coral, Fla., logged onto his Facebook account to chat with his son, Adam, a 3rd Platoon soldier who was up late in Afghanistan. Spec. Adam Winfield confided that he'd had a run-in with Gibbs, his squad leader. He then referred to the slaying of the Afghan villager the month before, adding that other platoon members had threatened him because he did not approve.
"I was just shocked," Christopher Winfield said in a phone interview. "He was scared for his life at that point."
The father called the Army inspector general's 24-hour hot line and left a voice mail. He called the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and left another message. He called a sergeant at Lewis-McChord who told him to call the Army's criminal investigations division. He left another message there.
Finally, he said, he called the Fort Lewis command center and spoke for 12 minutes to a sergeant on duty. He said the sergeant agreed that it sounded as if Adam Winfield was in potential danger but that, unless he was willing to report it to his superiors in Afghanistan, there was little the Army could do.
"He just kind of blew it off," Christopher Winfield said. "I was sitting there with my jaw on the ground."
Winfield said he specifically told the sergeant of his son's warning that more murders were in the works.
On Feb. 22, charging documents say members of the 3rd Platoon killed someone else. The Army has released few details about the slaying but has charged Gibbs, Morlock and Spec. Michael Wagnon of Las Vegas with murder.
Wagnon also been has charged with possessing "a skull taken from an Afghan person's corpse." An attorney for Wagnon did not return a call seeking comment.
Members of the 3rd Platoon found their next victim May 2, documents show. Gibbs, Morlock and Adam Winfield — the son of the former Marine who said he tried to alert the Army three months earlier — are accused of tossing a grenade and fatally shooting an Afghan cleric, Mullah Adahdad, near Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
Winfield's attorney, Eric Montalvo, said his client was ordered to shoot but fired high and missed. He and Winfield's parents say they can't understand why the Army has charged their son, given that his father tried to warn officials about the platoon.
After word leaked that one soldier had spoken to military police, several platoon members retaliated, records show. They confronted the informant and beat him severely. As a last warning, the documents state, Gibbs menacingly waved finger bones he had collected from Afghan corpses.
However, the informant talked to the MPs again and told them what he had heard about the slayings, according to court documents.
This time, the Army acted quickly and made arrests.