Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The case of Lance Cpl. Walter R. Smith

Left: Nicole Speirs, from

The disturbing, heart-wrenching story of Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith was featured in the New York Times on Sunday. I found it so upsetting, I had to read it in shifts. It made me cry. One life taken and another life shattered--and to what end?

For every war ever fought, there are Walter Smiths, the uncounted war casualties.

And let's not forget his victim, Nicole Speirs, the 22-year-old mother of his twin children, whom he drowned in the bathtub, for no apparent reason that anyone can understand.

Mr. Smith confessed to the killing at a Veterans Affairs hospital, which immediately set his crime in the context of his deployment and of a growing concern about care for veterans with combat stress. The fact that Mr. Smith was discharged from the Marines for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, made the prosecutor reluctant to bring the case to a jury.

“Did we want to go through a trial where basically we were going to have to defend the United States’ actions on how they treated him?” Mr. Searle said.

Nobody believes that Mr. Smith’s killing of Ms. Speirs can be justified. But many involved in the case have wondered aloud, at some point, whether Ms. Speirs’s life might have been spared if the marine’s combat trauma had been treated more aggressively.
Understandably, Nicole's family is having none of it.

“When they mention Nicole, it’s like an aside,” Mr. Speirs said, his voice quiet, his emotion muted. “I feel like a lot of people are using her death as something against the war. They practically are like saying that President Bush killed Nicole. Well, Walter killed Nicole. The war can be a factor. It’s not a reason or an excuse for it.”

Mr. Smith himself, in a long, dry-eyed interview in October, almost agreed. “I can’t completely, honestly say that, yes, PTSD was the sole cause of what I did,” he said, speaking through a plastic partition in a courthouse holding cell. “I don’t want to use it as a crutch. I’d feel like I was copping out of something I claim responsibility for. But I know for a fact that before I went to Iraq, there’s no way I would have taken somebody else’s life.”
I believe him.

In high school, Walter Smith was a typical geek, belonging to the math club and chess club. He played in the school band and sang in the school choir. The Times describes him as having been "a squeaky-clean Mormon boy," and by all accounts I have read, this seems largely accurate. One of 12 children, he didn't smoke or drink and almost decided on a Latter Day Saints mission abroad, rather than enlisting in the military.

Yet at a high school career day, Mr. Smith was drawn to the Marine Corps booth partly because the military seemed like a departure from a preordained path. “Growing up LDS,” he said, using the abbreviation for Latter-day Saints, “you’re pretty much told what you’re going to do. At the age of 19, the young men are supposed to go off on mission.”

In early 2000, Mr. Smith went off to boot camp instead, enlisting in the Reserves, like many other young Mormon recruits, so that he retained the option of mission duty.

Mr. Smith made an impression on the recruiters, scoring in the 99th percentile on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery tests, said Christopher Nibley, a fellow reservist from Utah. “I was doing a stint in the recruiting office then,” Mr. Nibley said, “and I remember a recruiter saying, ‘Damn, that boy is so smart!’ ”
After deployment, the turning point appeared to be April 8, 2003, described by the Times correspondent as one of the war's "furious engagements."

I guess that's one way to put it:

As dawn broke just outside Baghdad, they woke to find themselves staring at Armageddon, as Mr. Nibley said, with fires burning, helicopters shooting rockets and explosions echoing through the early-morning air. Entering the city, they climbed down from their trucks and fanned out. While the first platoon to move forward took fire immediately — with one marine shot through his helmet — others found themselves walking into the arms of exultant Iraqis.

Before long, however, as they arrived at a five-point intersection near the Republican Guard headquarters and the Defense Ministry, the cheering civilians disappeared, traffic vanished and the streets turned ghostly. As they set up roadblocks, rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire began whizzing toward them from the heavily defended compounds.

“I felt like I was in the middle of a duck shoot and we were the ducks,” said Mr. Smith, who was a SAW — squad automatic weapon — gunner. “I don’t know how many R.P.G.’s we took. One landed about five feet to the right of me and my buddy. I don’t know how it it did not detonate, but instead it bounced. Bounced! I can’t believe we’re still alive.”

The fighting did not let up for many hours. “Whether or not I actually killed anybody with my own bullets, I don’t know,” Mr. Smith said. “I suspect so. But there were two to 12 guns going off at once, and only the snipers knew for sure.” At a certain point, the Iraqi fighters commandeered civilians’ cars, taking them hostage and ordering them to drive straight at the Marine positions. The marines were forced to shoot at everything headed their way.

“We were opening fire on civilians,” Mr. Smith said. “We were taking out women and children because it was them or us.”

Sergeant Major Lopez, his superior officer, said that his marines were “put in that position” and “trained to protect themselves first.”

“Our marines tried to limit civilian casualties,” he said. “Not a person there didn’t feel bad. But it had to be done.”

That day traumatized the reservists. [Christopher] Quiñones recalled a father carrying toward them the limp body of a young child. His voice cracking, he described a 5-year-old boy screaming as his car “turned into Swiss cheese.”

“I called cease-fire and I wanted to run and grab him, but there were machine gun rounds flying all around,” Mr. Quiñones said. “I watched this kid’s head get blown away, his brains splattering while his screams still echoed. Those images haunt me — haunt many of us — to this day.”

After returning home, Walter reported to the rifle range in Quantico, Virginia, with a friend from Fox company, the combined Salt Lake City-Las Vegas battalion nicknamed the Saints and Sinners:

Raising his rifle, he stared through the scope and started shaking. What he saw were not the inanimate targets before him but vivid, hallucinatory images of Iraq: “the cars coming at us, the chaos, the dust, the women and children, the bodies we left behind,” he said.

Each time he squeezed the trigger, Mr. Smith cried, harder and harder until he was, in his own words, “bawling on the rifle range, which marines just do not do.” Mortified, he allowed himself to be pulled away. And not long afterward, the Marines began processing his medical discharge for post-traumatic stress disorder, severing his link to the Reserve unit that anchored him and sending him off to seek help from veterans hospitals.

This treatment infuriated his fellow soldier, Christopher Nibley:

“All I ever heard was Walter went nuts on the firing range, and then I never see this guy again until I see his picture on the front page looking like Grizzly Adams because he killed his girlfriend,” his fellow reservist Mr. Nibley said.

Mr. Nibley, who describes himself as adrift after two tours of duty in Iraq, said he was infuriated to learn later that Mr. Smith had been processed for discharge.

“I can’t tell you how angry I am at the Marine Corps that they just fast-tracked him out,” Mr. Nibley said. “It’s the culture and mentality of: ‘We don’t want a loser on our team. We’re not here to help you, you’re here to help us.’ ”

“I understand that we’re an infantry unit and if you’re not able to carry a gun and go into combat, that’s a problem,” Mr. Nibley said. “But we were his anchors, and we would have been his advocates. He was a mentally injured person because of his service to this country. He should not have been kicked out to go off on his own and deal with it all outside.”
Walter didn't deal. Although he resumed his job at the Wal-mart, he was also severely shaken by the divorce of his parents. He saw a psychiatrist on a few occasions at an Air Force base in Utah, and attended a group session for returning veterans, in which he felt out of place:

“I’m sitting there and these guys are talking about the hard time they’re having because their supply unit heard some fire one time,” he said. “They never saw their buddies get hit. They never killed anybody. They had nothing to worry about. I never went back.”
He started taking various medications, which did nothing to help him. He stopped taking them.

“Nothing seemed to quiet the storm in my head,” he said. “I started having nightmares and flashbacks or hallucinations. During the day, I was functioning O.K., but I was feeling antsy. I couldn’t find peace.”

Two things helped: drinking — 18 to 24 cans a day of Utah’s lower-alcohol beer — and pulling a trigger. “One day, I went out skeet shooting with a buddy, and I realized I felt so much better having a shotgun in my hand and watching something explode,” he said. He bought three guns of his own.
At one point, Walter became suicidal, took his guns and fled to the nearby mountains:
Mr. Smith left goodbye messages for everyone in his cellphone directory. One of his Fox Company buddies was awake, though, and took his call. He forced Mr. Smith to tell him his location and then he called the Pleasant Grove police. The police intercepted Mr. Smith near a trail head for Mount Timpanogos, and when he saw the officers approaching, he loaded his shotgun. He later told a close friend that he had been hoping for “suicide by cop.”

The police did not oblige. Capt. Cody Cullimore, the former assistant police chief, said Mr. Smith was compliant. He was taken to a mental health center and admitted briefly for observation.

“Sometimes I think,” Mr. Smith said, “that if I had taken my life that day, I would have saved Nicole’s.”
Walter began meeting women on MySpace, which is where he met Nicole.

Chillingly, the Times describes several alarming warning signs that were ignored.

In November, Mr. Smith called the Pleasant Grove police asking for help. The officer who was dispatched to his house was the one who had intervened in his suicide attempt five months earlier. Mr. Smith advised the officer “that he was having thoughts of taking the life of his girlfriend while she was asleep,” Captain Cullimore said. “He asked to be transferred to the hospital, which he was.”
Nicole Speirs became pregnant with twins, which Walter did not believe were his. He met another woman, but it ended badly:
One night, he came home with duct tape and demanded that the woman accompany him to the basement, said Mr. Searle, the prosecutor. Once downstairs, Mr. Smith turned to the woman and implored her to get away from him quickly before he did her harm. She ran away. The couple broke up. In a further sign of his deterioration, Mr. Smith filed for bankruptcy and moved in with a marine buddy.
Seven months after their twins were born, Walter re-connected with Nicole. He saw photos of their babies on MySpace, "smiling out at him like carbon copies of his own baby pictures." Nicole, raising twins alone, was ecstatic that Walter had come back to her.
They moved into an apartment together in Tooele. Both of them were working at Wal-Mart, she as a cashier at the Tooele store, he as the manager of the photo lab at the West Jordan store. They did not fight, according to their friends and families, and “he was not mean to her,” said Pauline Speirs, her mother.
And just like that, something snapped inside Walter. Reading the account, you are grateful young Nicole did not see it coming, and probably didn't fully understand what was happening. (I like to think she didn't, anyway.)
In the post-midnight hours of March 25, 2006, the couple took a bath after making love. Ms. Speirs turned to rinse her hair under the faucet, and Mr. Smith pushed her head underwater and held it there until she died. Then he left her in the tub, dressed, fetched the twins, put them in their car seats and drove off, as planned, to a family reunion in Idaho.
Obviously, Walter had lost touch with reality, even leaving a message on Nicole's cellphone that he would be returning early from Idaho. The water was still running when he returned, and he lifted Nicole's body out of the tub, performing CPR. He called 911. He called her parents and without emotion, told them their daughter was dead.

Walter had no record of arrests, not even a traffic violation. There was no history of domestic violence; neighbors had never even heard them raise their voices to each other. He was not a suspect, and besides that, Tooele, Utah, doesn't even have a homicide team. Nicole's death was officially listed as "a drowning from unknown causes."

Walter drew attention to himself during the funeral, as he showed no emotion. He commented that he had seen a lot of death, and it didn't affect him anymore.

Walter then began a relationship with Michelle Zeller, who describes Walter's further descent, as he alternately slept for long periods, only to awaken with tremors. He decided to try more counseling, and finally, went to the VA hospital and confessed to the murder.
At first Mr. Searle, the prosecutor, was cautious. “I didn’t want to just take his confession based on his history that we knew,” he said. Doubt was planted in part by something that Mr. Smith said to the police: “The biggest thing I want to get out of this is help.”

Further, when Matthew Jube, the lawyer hired by Walter Smith’s family, asked Mr. Smith what had happened, Mr. Smith asked him “which version” of events, the one that he had told the police or the one that he saw in his dreams. Mr. Jube began to think that Mr. Smith had given a false confession as a “cry for help,” motivated partly by guilt, both over his relationship with Ms. Speirs and about his killing of civilians in Iraq

Left: Walter Smith at his sentencing, photo from the New York Times.
A manslaughter plea was negotiated, which according to state guidelines, means a sentence of one to 15 years. At his sentencing, he mumbled and didn't want to speak, but finally did:
“I didn’t plan on doing what I did,” he said quietly. “I wish I could take it back, but I know I can’t. All I can say is I’m sorry. I’m not asking for leniency.”

The judge asked him to turn and address his victim’s parents directly.

“I’m sorry,” he said to them, his head falling down once more. “There’s nothing else I can say beside that.” His face crumpled, his voice cracked and his eyes watered. “I couldn’t ask for better people to raise my children,” the former marine continued, adding yet again, as his and her relatives wept, “I’m sorry.”
We're sorry, too, Walter, that we have not been vigilant as a society. We are negligent, we have sinned; we haven't halted this brutal insanity. We are sorry, too, Nicole, that your life was taken from you, as so many other women and children's lives have been taken, by this sordid, immoral, disgusting, reprehensible act of butchery that is the Iraq War.

Sorry is the word.


Listening to: Nina Simone - I Shall Be Released
via FoxyTunes