Image: Frank Wuterich
Denis Poroy  /  AP
Marine Frank Wuterich allegedly tried to convince others to lie about the Haditha attack.
updated 8/31/2007 7:23:39 PM ET 2007-08-31T23:23:39

The leader of a squad of Marines that killed 24 Iraqis in Haditha told two soldiers a week before the assault if they were ever hit by a roadside bomb they should kill everyone in the area, a former squad member testified Friday.

Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz said he had the conversation with Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and another Marine while the men were smoking cigarettes during some down time. A roadside bomb had gone off that day and injured several Marines, Dela Cruz said.

Dela Cruz was testifying at a hearing to determine if Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., should stand trial on charges of murdering 17 Iraqis.

“Everybody was pretty much upset,” Dela Cruz told the prosecutor, Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan. “We were smoking outside ... for whatever reason Staff Sergeant Wuterich made this comment that if we ever got hit again we should kill everybody in that vicinity, sir, to teach them a lesson.”

About a week later, on Nov. 19, 2005, another bomb did go off, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas. In the aftermath of the blast, five men were shot dead by a car and other men, women and children were killed as Marines went on a house-to-house sweep, ostensibly looking for the bomb’s triggerman.

Dela Cruz was initially charged with murder for participating in the killing of the men by the car. Prosecutors dropped those charges in exchange for his testimony.

Testimony of incident
In all, four enlisted Marines were charged with murder and four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the deaths. Charges have been dropped against three of the men.

Dela Cruz testified that he saw Wuterich shoot the five men by the car, then follow up with close-range chest shots to make sure they were dead. Dela Cruz said he too fired at the men.

Wuterich has previously said he shot the men because they were running away from the scene of the bomb blast. Military rules at the time allowed Marines to kill those seen fleeing in this way. But Dela Cruz claimed the men were “just standing around,” some with their hands interlocked on their heads.

“Those men are not running, sir,” Dela Cruz testified. “Some of them had their hands up.”

Dela Cruz also testified that Wuterich had told him that “if anybody asked about the five guys by the white car, that they were running away and the Iraqi army shot them.”

The Marines were on patrol with a handful of Iraqi soldiers when the incident occurred.

Was Marine following combat rules?
Wuterich’s lead military defense counsel, Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, was expected to cross-examine Dela Cruz later Friday.

Vokey said Thursday that Dela Cruz’s account was incorrect, and the Marine had changed his story several times over the course of the investigation.

“He has given many statements and given many different versions. Dela Cruz is all over the map,” Vokey said.

The case centers on whether Wuterich, who had never experienced combat before, acted within Marine rules of engagement when he shot the men by the car, then led his squad in a string of house raids.

Wuterich said he was following combat rules in place at the time and that he attacked the houses because he thought gunfire was coming from them.

Aerial footage from an unmanned drone sent into the skies above Haditha in the minutes after the bomb blast shows several bodies clustered close to a white car. The tape obtained by The Associated Press also shows Marines engaged in several other gunfights in the city.

Marine faces life sentence
The Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury probe, but the defense gets to cross-examine government witnesses.

At the end of the hearing, investigating officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware will make a recommendation about whether Wuterich should stand trial. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the general overseeing the case, makes the final decision.

Ware has already presided over two separate hearings in the case, when he listened to evidence against two of Wuterich’s lance corporals — Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt — who were charged with murder. In both cases, Ware found prosecutors could not prove the Marines operated outside combat rules, and he recommended the charges be dismissed.

Wuterich is also charged with making a false official statement and telling another Marine to do the same. He faces a possible life sentence and dishonorable discharge if court-martialed.

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