Video: Facing charges

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Dateline NBC
updated 4/26/2005 12:51:29 PM ET 2005-04-26T16:51:29

We've all had to make split-second decisions, but seldom the kind soldiers face in battle -- to kill or be killed. That was the choice a Marine lieutenant says he was facing when he shot two men in Iraq. His decision to take two lives led to rare criminal charges that could cost him his own life. Ilario Pantano, described by one superior as having more integrity, dedication and drive than any Marine he's ever met, now stands charged with murder. For the first time on television, Lt. Pantano tells his story.

Pantano: “The job description of an infantry platoon commander is to close with and destroy the enemy. ‘Kill’ is part of our vernacular. That's part of our job. So, to speak to murder with premeditation in the context of defending my life is outrageous.”

Through two wars, Ilario Pantano willingly took on the risks that came with being a frontline, combat marine. Now the 33-year-old second lieutenant is fighting for his life on an unexpected battleground, right here at home.

Pantano has been charged with premeditated murder for the shooting deaths last year of two Iraqi men in his custody. If the case goes to a court martial and Pantano is convicted, he could face life in prison, possibly even the death penalty.

Pantano: “This isn't my enemy putting me in a predicament. This is my corps, my beloved corps. And it is, quite frankly, very painful.”

Pantano loved the Marine Corps so much, he enlisted twice, the first time after graduating from one of New York City's finest prep schools. He served in Desert Storm. He left the corps to earn a college degree, worked on Wall Street, and co-founded an interactive TV business. But his wife, Jill, says he never lost the desire to serve.

September 11 gave him another chance. When he came home that day, he didn't have to say a word.

Jill Pantano: “I opened the door and he was a completely different person. He had shaved his head and he was basically in warrior mode. He said, ‘they attacked our city and I'm going to do something about it.’”

It took Pantano a year to convince the Marines to let a 30-year-old back in. But by April, 2004, the newly commissioned second lieutenant was on duty in Iraq, just as the insurgency was reaching new levels of violence. It was the deadliest month of the war for American forces, and Pantano says Easter Sunday was no exception.

Pantano: “We were in a six-hour gun battle because of an ambush this was the wake up call to all of us that we were, that things had really transitioned from the peace-keeping mode to full combat mode.”

Stone Phillips: “It was heating up?”

Pantano: “It was on fire.”

The following is Lt. Pantano's version of what happened just four days later. On April 15, his unit got a tip from some Iraqis in a town south of Baghdad. They identified a house where they claimed insurgents were hiding out and storing weapons. Pantano says he smelled a set-up.

Pantano: “The most critical clue was that the people who gave us this information drew a map. We had never had that kind of a windfall of information. So this thing smelled like an ambush immediately.”

Phillips: “Sounded too good to be true to you.”

Pantano: “Absolutely. We went in heavy. We had machine guns with us, because we fully expected we would be ambushed by some larger force as we had just seen just days prior.”

Phillips: “You were not taking this lightly.”

Pantano: “Not at all.”

Lt. Pantano had 40 men under his command split into three squads.

Pantano: “And in the process of starting those squads moving forward, we see a white sedan start pulling away from the house. I ordered the vehicle stopped.”

Phillips:” Did it look like they were racing away?”

Pantano: “It looked like they were trying to flee.”

Phillips: “So how did you stop the car?”

Pantano: “We fired a couple of shots into the ground and they knew to stop. I had to grab my radio operator and my corpsman to go after the car because it was now away from the target house, down a road.”

Pantano, his radio operator, Sgt. Daniel Coburn, and the platoon's medic, corpsman George Gobles, ordered two Iraqi men out of the car. Neither was armed. 

Pantano: “I order my corpsman to do a search of the car. He looks. Finds nothing.”

But back at the target house, Marines hit pay dirt. There'd been no ambush and they'd found a weapons cache: AK-47 rifles, bomb-making material, mortar equipment and a flare gun, often used by insurgents to signal attacks.    

Pantano: “When I heard that there was this arms cache in the house. I thought these guys are bad guys and that they know they've been caught.”

He ordered the Iraqis cuffed. They claimed they were just visiting family in the house, but the Marines weren't about to let them go. Convinced there had to be something hidden in the car, Pantano had the Iraqis uncuffed and directed them to search their vehicle. That way, if the car was booby-trapped, they would pay the price.

Pantano: “I wanted the car looked at more thoroughly and I wanted them to do it. I wanted them to take the car to the bones. And I didn't want to risk one of my Marines or my sailor, my corpsman, in what could be a dangerous procedure.”

Lt. Pantano ordered his radio operator and his corpsman to take up security positions. While they kept their eyes on the surrounding area, Pantano, armed with an M16, watched the Iraqis as they began to search the car, one the front seat, the other the back. Almost immediately, he says, they began speaking to each other in muffled tones in Arabic. What happened next unfolded in a flash.

Pantano: “I give them a command in Arabic to stop. They continue and then there was this moment of quiet. I felt, I could feel like the oxygen getting sucked out of my lungs. I could feel that this thing was happening. There was this beat and they both pivoted to me at the same time, moving towards me at the same time and, in that moment, of them, of them disobeying my command to stop and pivoting to me at the same time, I shot them.”

Pantano's concern was that they might have grabbed a hidden weapon or were lunging for his. From just 10 feet away, he emptying one magazine from his M-16 rifle, then reloaded and emptied a second, firing a total of 50 to 60 shots.

Pantano: “I didn't wait to see if there was a grenade. I didn't wait to see if there was a knife. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of dead soldiers and Marines who have waited, too long. And my men weren't going to be those dead soldiers or Marines and neither was I.”

Phillips: “And the idea of maybe firing a warning shot?”

Pantano: “There wasn't time for warning shots. There was time for action and I had to act. It becomes very personal. It stops being about war and moving blue arrows and little pieces and big pieces and hold this bridge and take this ground. These guys tried to kill me. That 's what I'm feeling and the language that's going through my head at that point was no better friend, and no worse enemy."

That was the unofficial motto of Pantano's division in Iraq, coined by its commander, Gen. James Mattis. He wanted his Marines to bring help to friendly Iraqis and a world of hurt to anyone who stood in their way. Pantano wrote the motto on a piece of cardboard, then placed it on the car above the bullet-ridden bodies.

Pantano: “Those words, no better friend, no worse enemy, were repeatedly drilled into us. It was our, the mantra of our mission.”

Putting it on that sign would come back to haunt him. That night, he returned to base and was de-briefed.

Pantano: “The mood was congratulatory. It was, you know, these guys made a mistake. It was, they picked the wrong Marine.”

But two months later, a full investigation was under way. It was launched after Sgt. Coburn, the radio operator, raised questions about the shooting to a fellow Marine, and that Marine reported it to his chain of command. Coburn himself later told investigators that after hearing that weapons were found in the house, Pantano bashed the Iraqis' car with his rifle butt and seemed "like he wanted to teach them a lesson." 

Phillips: “Investigators were told that when you heard about this arms cache back at the house over the radio that you seemed a little quote ‘pissed off.’ Were you angry when you heard that?”

Pantano: “I wouldn't say that I was angry. I would say that I was feeling like we had had a successful mission.”

Pantano was pulled from the field and lost command of his platoon. Last month, the formal charges were filed. The Marines didn't believe Pantano's claim of self-defense, alleging that he set out to murder the unarmed detainees and desecrated the bodies by placing that sign above the corpses.

Pantano: “I put the sign on the car. Nowhere on the bodies, to show my Marines this could have been them that would be dead and I took the sign down two minutes later.”

Phillips: “The Marines have charged that you shot these Iraqis in the back. Did you?”

Pantano: “No, I did not. I shot them in the sides. I shot them in the chest. I shot them as they were turning towards me.”

Pantano's attorney, Charles Gittins, says the Iraqis who were shot brought it on themselves.

Charles Gittins: “You've got to remember, these were bad guys in a bad area.”

Phillips: “They were also detainees in his custody.”

Gittins: “Right.”

Phillips: “Does he have an obligation to protect their safety?”

Gittins: “Well, he has an obligation to protect himself. To the extent that the detainees make an aggressive act, put him in danger, then they have forfeited their opportunity to live.”

But, even if Pantano did act in self defense, the number of bullets he fired and his reason for doing so raised serious questions.

Phillips: “You emptied a magazine. And emptied a second magazine.”

Pantano: “The speed it took me to wipe the sweat off my brow is how quickly you fire and reload a magazine. I shot them until they stopped moving.”

Phillips: “Fifty rounds, 60 rounds to stop them?”

Pantano: “Stone, unfortunately, combat is a pretty ugly business. What's the right number of rounds to save your life? I would say it's enough until there is no more threat.

But in a statement he gave early in the investigation, Lt. Pantano offered a slightly different explanation, saying "I believed that by firing the number of rounds that I did, I was sending a message that we were no better friend, no worse enemy.”

Phillips: “Reading that statement leads to the question, when did it go from firing in self defense to sending a message? At what point? How many bullets in?”

Pantano: “Stone, I kept firing until they stopped moving. It doesn't take a lot of energy to pull a grenade pin. To protect the lives of my men, I would do it again in a moment.”

So why would one of those men, Sgt. Coburn, raise questions about the shooting? Pantano told us he thinks the sergeant was disgruntled because Pantano had been critical of him as a squad leader.

Pantano: “My second most senior person in my platoon was relegated to one of the most junior positions that you can have in a platoon. A sergeant of 10 years was carrying the radio for me.”

Phillips: “And you think he resented that?”

Pantano: “In retrospect, I think so.”

Phillips: “Enough that he would accuse you of something like premeditated murder?”

Pantano: “In fairness to him, I don't he ever thought it would take the direction that it's taken.”

Sgt. Coburn declined our request for an on-camera interview but told us that he "never had a grudge" against Pantano and stands by his statements about the incident.

The only other person present that day was the Navy corpsman. He told investigators that he heard Pantano yell "stop" before the shooting began and, when he turned to look, he thought the Iraqis were trying to flee. But neither the corpsman nor the Marine Sergeant saw what happened in the critical seconds before Pantano opened fire.

Pantano: “I was told to go do a job. My job is to locate the enemy. In this case, the enemy threatened me and I killed the enemy.”

The Marine corps wouldn't comment on Pantano's case. It's scheduled to be heard at the end of April. He goes into the legal battle with plenty of support, from strangers to fellow Marines. But no one has been more active in his defense than his mother. She started an organization called "Defend the Defenders" and it has generated thousands of letters and emails and tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

But it also inspired a macabre imitation, a Web site whose threat Pantano has taken seriously. To protect his wife and two sons, the combat veteran installed a sophisticated home security system and armed himself with an old stand by as well. He's digging in for a long battle.

Pantano: “This is my fight now.”

Phillips: “The Corps trained you and now you're fighting the Corps.

Pantano: “The saddest day of my life is this day, is this moment where I have to use my, my passions to defend myself against my Corps instead of defending my country against our enemies. That is what breaks my heart.”

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