"All my life, I just hoped for the average American dream," Pfc. Jesse Spielman wrote from Christian County Jail in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 2006, eight months before he was sentenced to 110 years in prison. "Get a nice house, good job, loving wife and settle down and start a family. I thought I started out good. I graduated when I was 17, got married right out of Basic. I joined [the Army] mainly to get a jumpstart on life. It has great benefits and we were planning on starting our family soon. I did it for me and for her, but now it has ruined our life, well at least mine anyways."
Spielman was convicted for his involvement in the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, a 14-year-old Iraqi civilian girl, and the murder of Abeer's sister Hadeel, her father Qassim Hamzeh Rasheed, and her mother Fakhariya Taja Muhassain, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, on March 12, 2006.
"I could have stopped it."—Pfc. Jesse Spielman on the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi
The trial of the alleged ringleader in the crime, Pfc. Steven Green, began last week in Paducah, Kentucky. Green is charged on 16 counts, including premeditated murder, conspiracy, and sexual abuse. He may face the death penalty.
The testimony and statements made by Spielman and three of the other soldiers involved have clarified many of the details of the killings, but the major questions remain: How did someone like Spielman end up involved in a quadruple murder of innocent civilians? What happened to his dream? How did he go from a man planning a family to a man who helped destroy one?
Before the War
Spielman, the then-22-year-old soldier who stood feet away from Abeer and held the door shut as she was raped, grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
"I've had a full-time job ever since the week I turned 16, met my wife in October 2001, went steady until I proposed to her on her birthday, May 4, 2004," Spielman wrote from jail.
Spielman joined the army in March 2005. "I supported our country and wanted to be patriotic, get respect and experience new things," Spielman wrote. Spielman was married in his Army uniform and his bride wore a T-shirt saying, "I love my soldier." Jeff Cosey, the best man at Spielman's wedding, said he was "just like one of your friends."
Spielman described his family as supportive. After authorities detained Spielman for his role in the killings, his grandmother organized a trust to accept donations from friends and family to pay for a civilian lawyer, according to his letters. She offered to sell her house to help.
Sgt. Paul Cortez, who sexually assaulted Abeer and held her down while another soldier raped her, grew up in Barstow, California. Barstow, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, is midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It is home to the US Army National Training Center at Ft. Irwin and the Marine Corps Logistics Base.
Cortez didn't think much of his hometown. "Barstow is a real shitty place to grow up," he wrote in a letter from prison. "There's nothing but drugs and trouble there. It is the armpit of California."
Cortez's mother, Pat Adams, a recovering methamphetamine addict, calls Barstow the drug capital of California. "You can go on any corner and buy drugs," she said.
Adams, disabled and living in and out of motel rooms for several years, credits her son with helping her stop using drugs. She has lived on a disability check since 1975. "If I don't have that check coming in I'm as bad as a bag lady out on the streets," Adams said from her motel room soon after her son was accused of the rape/murder. "I guess I've just learned all these years that this is how it's going to be. I'm surviving by a shoestring, but I'm alright."
"He's my baby," Adams said about her son. "I love him. I wish I had been rich and I had been able to send him to college and he would've never gone [to Iraq], but that's wishing."
Cortez has grown up from the boy his mother shows off in his high-school photograph. The handsome, dark-featured man is tall and imposing in person. His demeanor is straightforward and matter of fact. His voice is tough, smooth, and confident. The day before his arraignment, his voice sounded seasoned, hardened by his experience, but underneath, desperately sad.
Spc. James Barker, who raped Abeer and held her down while Cortez was on top of her, comes from Fresno, California.
Barker dropped out of high school and became a father at age 18. He had a second child with his wife whom he later divorced. He then had a third child with a girlfriend. Barker enlisted in the Army in November 2002 and went on active duty in March 2003.
Before he joined the army, Barker worked a minimum-wage job as a go-kart attendant at Boomers, an amusement park. Steve Castro, one of his co-workers at Boomers, has lived in Fresno his entire life. He said he hardly remembers Barker. "I saw it on the news," he said about the killings. "There wasn't a lot of talk here. He didn't work here very long so no one would remember him, anyway."
At his arraignment in November 2006, in his green dress uniform, the 5'6'' dark-haired Barker looked afraid.
Pfc. Steven Green, who allegedly raped and killed Abeer and murdered her parents and six-year-old sister, grew up in Midland, Texas.
One of the few publicized images of Green shows a lean, tough-looking man holding an AK-47 with his chin up, a cigarette dangling between his lips.Green was convicted of several minor misdemeanors before joining the US Army at age 19. In 2005, with recruitment numbers down, the Army was issuing an increasing number of "moral waivers" enabling potential soldiers with previous criminal records to enlist. Green was honorably discharged in May 2006 for having a "personality disorder," after serving 11 months as an infantryman, according to the affidavit that charged Green with the killings in June 2006.
The men who were involved in the rape/murder did not initially confess to their roles in the events of the afternoon at the al-Janabi house. When the family was found dead, soldiers in the same company were sent to investigate and declared the incident a result of sectarian violence. The soldiers' involvement was not revealed for three months until June, when Pfc. Justin Watt, who had pieced together what his fellow platoon members had done based on conversations with some of the men involved, reported his suspicions to a combat stress team.
Because Green was charged with the rape and murders after he was discharged, he is being tried as a civilian.
Except for Green, none of the other soldiers had a history of violence or crime. Nothing about their backgrounds indicated a predisposition for rape or murder. The four men came to the US Army from different parts of the country. For personal, economic, and patriotic reasons, they all became members of the 101st Airborne Division from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, and were sent on a tour of duty to one of the deadliest regions in Iraq.
In October 2005, the death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq reached 2,000. It was also the month this group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division took over the checkpoint in Mahmudiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. They were stationed within the area then known as the "triangle of death" because of the high frequency of roadside bombs.
Army recruitment was down, President George W. Bush had recently conceded that some intelligence going into the war was inaccurate, and Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha called for redeployment of troops, saying in a letter to the President that their presence in Iraq was "fueling terrorism, not eliminating it."
It was Sgt. Cortez's second tour of duty, which he said was much worse than the previous one. "The stuff we were asked to do was too much for the amount of people we had," Cortez later wrote from prison. "We were way undermanned and no one gave a damn. We were left to die."
The company started suffering casualties and injuries early in their deployment. According to Spielman, an improvised explosive device (IED) killed two in his company in November. Weeks later, on Dec. 10, both his team leader and his squad leader were shot to death in front of him. "I killed the gunman," Spielman wrote. "There were four of us there and all of us were directly shot at."
Twelve days later, two more were killed. "Our platoon leader and another from my squad were blown into pieces by an IED," Spielman wrote. "I picked up body parts from bothmy platoon leader's lower jaw and my squad member's torso-up."
Cortez described the difficulty of watching his friends die. "Losing all my friends is the worst feeling," Cortez wrote. "Think how you would feel if you lost 10 of your close friends that all died in front of you and there was nothing you could do to help them but talk to them and try to take their mind off the fact they're going to die. It's a rough thing to deal with. It's not the stuff that people deal with. It tears a person's mind to shreds."
The conditions in Iraq had a strong effect on Barker, too. "To survive there, I became angry and mean," he stated during his arraignment. "The mean part of me made me strong on patrols. It made me brave in fights. I loved my friends, my fellow soldiers and my leaders, but I began to hate everyone else in Iraq."
Spielman said there were instances when they didn't have the resources required. "The entire deployment we usually had between two and four people there at once," Spielman wrote. "It wasn't a steady position, see, we didn't have a building, beds, positions and [we had] only one humvee."
Faced with death daily, Cortez didn't feel the Army supported soldiers seeking help. "When you want to get help through combat stress, you are looked at like a piece of shit and they talk to you like you're a bad person because you can't deal with it," Cortez wrote.
The Associated Press reported that an Army combat stress team diagnosed Green as a homicidal threat three months before the killings, but he remained on active duty. At his second examination eight days after the murder and rape (but well before the crimes were discovered), he was diagnosed with the antisocial personality disorder that eventually led to his discharge.
But on March 12, 2006, Green was still on active duty. During four hours off, he, Spielman, Cortez, and Barker were playing cards and drinking illegally-purchased Iraqi whiskey in a traffic-control-point room. According to Barker's testimony, Green proposed going to the nearby home of Abeer, raping her, and murdering her family. (Some of the soldiers had previously seen her pass through the checkpoint and had been to her family's home.)
"At a couple points I told him he was crazy," Barker said, but he added that the soldiers hardly discussed it further. A short while later, though, they changed into black, Army-issued clothing.
"It was a combination of [Green's] and Barker's [idea]," Cortez said. "Spielman and I were just stupid and went along with itjust said ok."
At no point in his testimony did Barker describe any of the soldiers objecting to the idea or rationalizing why it was OK. Two other soldiers, Pfc. Brian Howard, who stood watch outside, and Sgt. Anthony Yribe, who apparently didn't participate at all, were aware of the plan to go to the al-Janabi home. According to Cortez and Barker, not one of them asked questions or tried to stop it.
When questioned by military judge Lt. Col. Richard Anderson about the soldiers' intent, Barker replied, "to rape and kill, your honor."
According to Barker, when the soldiers arrived at the al-Janabi home, Green forced Abeer's father, mother, and six-year-old sister at gunpoint into a different room. Spielman held the door shut, while Barker and Cortez held Abeer down and raped her.
Barker described the rape in detail at his arraignment. "My knees were on her hands, holding her arms down," Barker said. "She was struggling, trying to close her legs, crying, screaming, yelling. Me and Cortez switched places. We heard shots coming from the room next door."
Green allegedly shot and killed the three family members, came out of the room, raped Abeer, and shot her in the head. The soldiers attempted to set fire to her body and the house. At Barker's arraignment, Anderson asked why he did it. "Because I hated Iraqis," Barker said. "They smile at you, then shoot you in the face."
Cortez expressed similar sentiments about Iraqis soon after his arrest. "I hate all those people," he said. "All of them."
Barker, Cortez, and Spielman are now all sentenced and in military prison. The judge sentenced Barker to life in prison and gave Cortez 100 years. Spielman contested some of his charges but was found guilty and given 110 years in prison.
All three will likely testify against Green at his trial, but it seems that they don't fault Green entirely. "I don't really blame anybody," Spielman said in court before his sentencing. "I could have stopped it. I take responsibility for my actions."
Letters Cortez and Spielman wrote from prison suggest the violent conditions contributed to their involvement in the killings. But other soldiers go through similar tragedies, are put in similar circumstances, and don't rape and murder innocent people. Other soldiers would have stopped Green. These soldiers didn't.
According to Barker's testimony, it was "more or less a non-verbal agreement." Cortez and Spielman just said OK. After hardly any discussion, they started changing. It wasn't the carefully crafted plot of four sociopaths. It didn't seem to have been planned much at all.
At the end of their trials, the soldiers themselves still didn't know why they did it.
"I still don't have an answer," Cortez said through tears at his trial. "I don't know why. I wish I hadn't."
Barker also shed tears and didn't offer an excuse at his sentencing. "I do not ask anyone to forgive me today," Barker said. "I don't know how that would be possible after what I have done."