Allauddin Khan  /  AP
FILE - In this Sunday, March 11, 2012 file photo, men stand next to blood stains and charred remains inside a home where witnesses say Afghans were killed by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged on Friday, March 23, 2012 with 17 counts of premeditated murder, a capital offense that could lead to the death penalty in the massacre of Afghan civilians, the U.S. military said. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan, File)
updated 3/25/2012 1:16:26 AM ET 2012-03-25T05:16:26

U.S. investigators believe the U.S. soldier accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians split the slaughter into two episodes, returning to his base after the first attack and later slipping away to kill again, two American officials said Saturday.

This scenario seems to support the U.S. government's assertion — contested by some Afghans — that the killings were done by one person, since they would have been perpetrated over a longer period of time than assumed when Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was detained March 11 outside his base in southern Afghanistan.

But it also raises new questions about how Bales, who was formally charged Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder and other crimes, could have carried out the nighttime attacks without drawing attention from any Americans on the Kandahar province base.

Afghan massacre suspect's wife: He would not do that

The two American officials who disclosed the investigators' finding spoke on condition of anonymity because the politically sensitive probe is ongoing.

Many details about the killings, including a possible motive, have not been made public. The documents released by the U.S. military Friday in connection with the murder charges do not include a timeline or a narrative of what is alleged to have happened.

Bales, 38, is accused of killing nine Afghan children and eight adults. The bodies were found in Balandi and Alkozai villages — one north and one south of the base, in Kandahar's Panjwai district.

Bales also was charged with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault in the same case.

U.S. investigators now believe that Bales walked off his base that night and killed several people in one of the villages, then went back to the base. The American officials, who are privy to some details of the investigation, said they do not know why Bales returned, how long he stayed or what he did while there.

He then slipped off the base a second time and killed civilians in the second village before again heading back toward the base. It was while he was returning the second time that a U.S. military search party spotted him. He is reported to have surrendered without a struggle.

Bales is being held in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Video: Charges filed against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (on this page)

There have been previous suggestions that Bales could have returned to base after the first set of shootings, but the American officials who spoke to The Associated Press on Saturday provided the first official disclosure that U.S. investigators have come to this conclusion.

Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings said one Afghan guard working from midnight to 2 a.m. on March 11 saw a U.S. soldier return to the base around 1:30 a.m. Another Afghan soldier who replaced the first and worked until 4 a.m. said he saw a U.S. soldier leave the base at 2:30 a.m. It's unknown whether the two Afghan guards saw the same U.S. soldier.

U.S. officials have said Bales left the base the first time armed with his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher.

Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said Friday that he believes the government will have a hard time proving its case and that his client's mental state will become an important issue. Browne has said Bales suffered from the stress of serving four combat tours.

The decision to charge Bales with premeditated murder suggests that prosecutors believe they have sufficient evidence that he consciously conceived the killings.

The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.

Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Charges filed against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

  1. Closed captioning of: Charges filed against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

    >>> now to the formal charges that led to 16 afghan women and children dead and others wounded. we have the latest. john, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, amy. staff sergeant robert bales begins his second week as an inmate at ft. leavenworth but now he faces charges, charges that could bring the maximum penalty of death. the formal charges are as blunt and as brutal as the crimes he's accused of, that he did with premeditation murder 17 afghan civilians and attempted to murder six others. in a separate charge, there are grisly details where he injured one girl with a gunshot wound to the head. he's being held in solitary confinement. he's told his attorney that he has only spotty memory of the night of the shootings.

    >> he's very emotional. he's holding up okay. he's kind of like a deer in the headlights.

    >> reporter: defense attorney john henry brown has suggested an untreated head injury , he says, bales suffered in iraq may explain the shooting rampage. but there are indications of questionable behavior even before he saw combat, for example a 202 tacoma, warks police report when they say bales attacked a security guard . charges were dropped after he complete 20 hours of anger management training. his attorney questions how much information the government has.

    >> there's no crime scene , there's no dna, there's no ballistics.

    >> reporter: military officials say there's plenty of evidence. shell indications gathered at the scene, surveillance video, his bloody uniforms and six potential witnesses. military law experts say getting after fwans to testify could billion a challenge.

    >> we don't have the power to d dictate the presence of nonresident aliens to come to the united states .

    >> reporter: military courts are different from the civilian justice system and analysts say bales' road to trial may not be speedy.

    >> it may be many, many months before we see case like this go to trial.

    >> reporter: he may soon be moved there, which may put him closer to his wife. amy?

    >> john yank thank you. a programming note, monday on "today," staff sergeant bales' wife karilyn will speak out for the first time in an exclusive interview with matt lauer .


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