A Fort Drum military policeman accused of stabbing his two Army buddies to death was arraigned on second-degree murder charges on Friday.
A not guilty plea was entered on behalf of 20-year-old Spc. Joshua Hunter in Jefferson County Court in Watertown.
Authorities say he killed 20-year-old Waide James and 23-year-old Diego Valbuena inside their apartment just outside Fort Drum. Their bodies were found Tuesday.
All three had served in Iraq and shared the apartment in Evans Mills near the main gate to the Army post that's home of the 10th Mountain Division.
Hunter, who was raised in West Virginia, was arrested early Wednesday in southern Ohio and returned by police to Jefferson County Thursday night. Fort Drum officials said he served in Iraq for a year and returned in May.
James and Valbuena both served in Iraq as drivers in the same battalion and were both from Florida. The pair spent the night together at James' grandparents' home in Port St. John this summer before returning to Fort Drum. James' grandfather, Chuck Mills, remembered Valbuena as the perfect guest: He made his bed military-style and did his own breakfast dishes.
People in the small communities that surround Fort Drum like a necklace wondered if post-traumatic stress disorder played a role. PTSD is a potentially crippling condition that can emerge after terrifying events like combat and is thought to affect as many as one in five veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Friend 'blow to pieces'?
On Thursday, Hunter's relatives said that he told them he saw his best friend "blown to pieces" in Iraq and came back a changed man: abusive, violent, sleepless, edgy and plagued by flashbacks.
Hunter and his alleged victims were all were based at the wind-swept Army post near the Canadian border, home of the much-deployed 10th Mountain Division, and shared an off-base apartment.
Hunter's wife, Emily Hunter, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that her husband was outgoing before he went to war, but when he returned stateside, he was an emotional wreck.
"He wasn't in any good mental shape at all," Emily Hunter said. "I tried to get him to go to therapy. They prescribed him medicine and stuff, but it just wasn't enough."
She said he saw a therapist at Fort Drum because of his volatile emotions and violent outbursts.
"He'd just burst into tears; spouts of anger or sadness," she said. "There'd be one emotion but it would be really deep, just extremely happy or extremely sad. His emotions were always on the rocks."
"He'd take his rage out on the wall, or throw something," she said.
While he wasn't violent toward his buddies, he was toward her, she said, adding that she went to the hospital a couple of times for treatment of an injured arm and thumb.
She said she moved out two weeks ago because of his violence and is pursuing a divorce.
Emily Hunter said her husband was haunted by one image:
"He saw his best friend get blown up to pieces and he tried to put him back together," she said. "He was never right after that."
Calls to Fort Drum to confirm that Hunter had seen a comrade killed by bomb were not immediately returned.
Hunter's wife said she has talked to her husband since his arrest.
"He just cried. They were his two best friends."
Hunter said she and her husband grew up together and were members of the fundamentalist Teays Valley Missionary Baptist Church in Hurricane, W.Va.
"He was religious," she said. "But after he came back from Iraq, he said he didn't believe there was a god because of all the things he'd really seen. He didn't think God would let that happen."
In an interview with The Associated Press at the family's home, Judy Hunter said her son was not the same after coming home. He had trouble sleeping and would stay up for days on end. He sometimes suffered flashbacks. Though her son never talked to her about the war, he did confide in his father about "the trauma he went through," she said.
Hunter, who manages a beauty salon, said her son told his wife in a telephone call after the slayings that he blacked out, woke to find his friends dead and panicked.
"In my heart of hearts, I think he snapped," his mother said.
Hunter waived extradition during a hearing in Ohio, where he was arrested early Wednesday in a hotel, and was being sent to upstate New York for arraignment.