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Ex-Army sergeant pleads guilty to brutal stabbing death of fellow soldier in Georgia barracks

The Justice Department said Byron Booker killed Spc. Austin J. Hawk in 2020 after Hawk reported Booker's friend for smoking marijuana.
A framed photo of Austin Hawk on a bench outside the home of his mother, Julie Hawk, in Chino Hills, Calif., on June 4, 2021.
A framed photo of Austin Hawk on a bench outside the home of his mother, Julie Hawk, in Chino Hills, Calif., on June 4, 2021.David Walter Banks for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

A former Army sergeant admitted to the brutal 2020 stabbing of a fellow soldier in his Georgia barracks, a killing federal prosecutors said was retaliation "in cold blood" for the soldier’s reporting marijuana use.

Byron Booker, 29, of Ludowici, Georgia, pleaded guilty to premeditated murder. Under the plea agreement, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of life in federal prison, the Justice Department said in a news release Thursday.

Prosecutors said Booker sneaked into Spc. Austin J. Hawk's barracks room at Fort Stewart Military Reservation on June 17, 2020, and "slashed and stabbed Hawk repeatedly with a sharp-edged weapon," the release says.

Hawk, 21, was found dead in his room the next day. A medical examiner said he had 40 slash and stab wounds.

Authorities said the killing was retaliation for Hawk’s reporting to a supervisor the marijuana use of another soldier, Jordan Brown, 21, who is Booker's friend.

A plea agreement says that because of Hawk's role as a squad leader, he was required to report drug use, which is considered a criminal offense.

"Byron Booker murdered a former fellow soldier in cold blood in retaliation for that soldier performing his duties as a service member," David Estes, the U.S. attorney for Southern Georgia, said in a statement. "The FBI and the Department of the Army Criminal Investigative Division did outstanding work in solving this despicable crime and bringing Booker to justice."

The plea agreement says Brown was ordered to complete a urine test stemming from Hawk’s and another soldier’s filing reports about his alleged marijuana use. When Brown's test came back positive for THC — a substance found in marijuana — he was informed that the Army was "initiating involuntary separation proceedings."

Brown and Booker said in phone calls that Hawk was a "snitch" and talked about "silencing" him, according to prosecutors.

"The pair discussed beating Hawk up, damaging his car, or breaking things in Hawk’s barracks room," the plea agreement says. "Booker suggested a plan to ‘silence’ Hawk for reporting Brown’s drug use."

Booker, according to the document, instructed Brown to obtain a master key for the barracks and give it to him, but Brown was not able to get the key.

At one point, Brown began to express concerns about getting caught and suggested that Booker beat up Hawk or break his jaw. Booker, however, said Hawk needed to be "silenced," the court filing says.

Brown's separation process from the Army began on June 16, 2020. The next day, around 12:20 a.m., Booker parked his vehicle outside a gate on the base and "unlawfully" entered before he walked to Hawk's barracks room. The plea agreement says Booker knew Hawk would be alone in the room because Brown told him Hawk's roommate had moved out.

The document does not specify how Booker was able to enter Hawk's barracks. It says that "based upon electronic lock records for Hawk’s room, it appears Defendant Booker somehow caused Hawk to open his door from the inside."

The two men got into a struggle that lasted about 40 minutes, according to the document. The fight made so much noise that Brown, in a room below, could hear furniture moving, the plea agreement says.

The FBI and local police took Booker into custody a day after the murder.

Brown was arrested on April 12, 2021, after he was indicted by a grand jury. He awaits further proceedings on charges of conspiracy, assault on a U.S. service member, retaliation, murder of a member of the U.S. military and premeditated murder.

Attorneys for Booker and Brown could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.