Suspect soldier in Afghan shooting was down on his luck

Mar 19 2012 - 10:33am

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In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. A senior U.S. official, Friday March 16, 2012 identified Bales as the man accused of killing 16 civilians in an attack on Afghan villagers five days ago. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)
In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, soldiers from Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, including Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, take part in exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Five days after an attack on Afghan villagers killed 16 civilians, a senior U.S. official identified Bales as the suspect in that attack. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)
In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, right, participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Five days after an attack on Afghan villagers killed 16 civilians, a senior U.S. official identified the shooter in that attack as Bales. The man at left is unidentified. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)
In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. A senior U.S. official, Friday March 16, 2012 identified Bales as the man accused of killing 16 civilians in an attack on Afghan villagers five days ago. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)
In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, soldiers from Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, including Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, take part in exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Five days after an attack on Afghan villagers killed 16 civilians, a senior U.S. official identified Bales as the suspect in that attack. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)
In this Aug. 23, 2011 Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System photo, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, right, participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Five days after an attack on Afghan villagers killed 16 civilians, a senior U.S. official identified the shooter in that attack as Bales. The man at left is unidentified. (AP Photo/DVIDS, Spc. Ryan Hallock)

SEATTLE -- The U.S. Army sergeant suspected in the deadly shooting rampage that left 16 Afghan civilians dead had been passed over for promotion and appeared to face mounting financial troubles on the eve of his last deployment to Afghanistan, according to accounts from neighbors and his wife's blog.

Neighbors in the communities around Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where Staff Sgt. Robert Bales lived with his wife and two children, said Bales had left a house in the town of Auburn abandoned after buying another home and failed to pay homeowners association dues on the deteriorating structure despite repeated demands.

"They couldn't keep up," Robert Baggett, association president, said in an interview. "They moved to (the nearby community of) Lake Tapps, and they rented their house here out, and then the renters, I guess, took off. They basically would not respond to any phone calls or messages from us to take care of the house."

Neighbors had begun parking their cars in the carport and sometimes mowing the grass to make it appear more lived-in, he said. "I understand now it is probably owned by the bank."

Bales' current home, meanwhile, a two-story, four-bedroom with a weathered hot tub and a backyard full of plastic toys, was recently listed as a short sale -- a transaction in which a homeowner is willing to sell for less than owed on the mortgage if the bank agrees. The house was listed, apparently shortly before the shootings, for $50,000 less than what the couple paid for it in 2005, according to court records and real estate sales reports.

Defense lawyer John Henry Browne, who hopes to soon interview Bales where he is being held in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., confirmed at a news conference that the couple were facing "problems like there are with all of us as far as finances" that might have contributed to his level of stress.

In her blog, Bales' wife, Karilyn, said the couple were frustrated after her husband had failed to be promoted to the paygrade of first sergeant in March of last year. They were hoping for a military transfer elsewhere, possibly to Kentucky to be near his family, to Hawaii, or overseas to Germany or Italy.

"It is very disappointing after all of the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends," Karilyn wrote.

Indeed, Bales' military record is full of commendations -- three good-conduct medals, several achievement badges awarded to his unit, and an Army achievement medal. But according to a list released by the Army on Friday night, he was not a recipient of the Bronze Star for valor or Purple Heart to reflect the two injuries his lawyer said he sustained over three deployments to Iraq.

One of Bales' former commanders, who spoke to The Seattle Times on the condition of anonymity, called him "a great noncommissioned officer" who distinguished himself during an intense battle with Shiite militia members in Iraq in 2007, a battle he said earned Bales an Army commendation.

"He was the guy who didn't get excited, because he had more life experiences. If you picked 10 guys to go into combat with, he would be on the list," he said, adding: "When I found out who the name was, I nearly fell off my chair, and I had a good cry."

Browne said the soldier's reputation among friends and co-workers was exemplary.

"Public reports that Sgt. Bales' supervisors, family and friends describe him as a level-headed, experienced soldier are consistent with information gathered by the defense team," Browne and his co-counsel, Emma Scanlan, said in a statement Saturday.

"It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence, examining all of Sgt. Bales' medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses," the lawyers said.

In Ohio, where Bales grew up, a yearbook photo from his high school near Cincinnati shows an earnest-looking young man who played on the football team and served as sophomore class president.

Bales "overachieved" on the football team, former classmate John Stacy told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "He wasn't the biggest of guys. He worked hard."

Michelle Cadell, who grew up near Bales in the town of Norwood, said Bales was fascinated with mechanical things and would often watch intently as neighbors worked on their cars. He always offered to pitch in and help neighbors, she told the Enquirer -- expressing shock at the news of his arrest.

"That's not our Bobby Bales," she said.

After high school, Bales attended Ohio State University for three years without graduating, according to local news reports, then moved to Florida, where he tried to start up a financial business before deciding in 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to enlist in the Army.

He spent nearly all of his Army years at Lewis-McChord, and underwent sniper training and warrior leadership training.

Browne and his team said Bales' wife and other family members would have nothing to say for the moment.

"Sgt. Bales' family is stunned in the face of this tragedy," they said in their statement. "But they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services."

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