Dueling pictures of ex-Utah Marine emerge

Published March 23, 2009 11:53 am
Iraqi deaths » Between an Eagle Scout and accused killer, the Blackwater guard's conflicting image reflects the case's complexity.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: This story originally ran Dec. 11, 2008.

Baghdad was beginning to come back to life -- and on Sept. 16, 2007, the traffic in the intersection at Nisoor Square was showing it. Converging in vehicles, bicycles and on foot were parents and children, students on their way to school, professionals and day laborers.

Within moments, at least 14 of them would be dead. More injured. One man was shot in the chest as he stood with his hands above his head. Several were killed while attempting to flee a sudden eruption of gunfire and grenade explosions.

It was the type of scene that Iraqis have come to know all too well. This time, however, the attack came not from terrorists, insurgents or rebel militiamen -- but from Americans.

An indictment filed Monday alleges that a former Marine from Utah, Donald Ball, and five other security contractors shared criminal responsibility for the massacre at Nisoor Square. Ball and four of the other accused men surrendered to authorities at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. A sixth pleaded guilty on Friday.

Prosecutors are calling the attack "a shocking violation of human rights." And that is hardly the most damning of what has been said. As three of the men entered court on Monday morning, a man from across the street yelled, "baby killers."

But to those who knew him, Ball was not a mercenary or a monster. Much to the contrary. Now, between Eagle Scout and accused killer, there remains much to reconcile.

With honorable intentions » The men charged Monday are honorably discharged soldiers and Marines. As security contractors they returned to Iraq to do a job -- a job made necessary at a time when the U.S. military was stretched precariously thin.

They are, according to family members and friends, tough men who made a split-second decision in an impossible situation.

Those who have known him, both before and after the attack at Nisoor Square, have called Ball a kind, compassionate and humble human being. He was an Eagle Scout who joined the Marines shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, accepting what he saw as honorable work in tribute to his father, who had died of a heart attack two years prior.

"He always wanted to do something that would make his father proud," said Ball's mother, Karen.

After three tours of duty in Iraq with the Marines, Ball found a job with security contractor Blackwater Worldwide -- a role that would bring him back to Iraq with a much larger salary than he'd gotten from the Marines. Using his first paychecks and his military savings, he purchased a home in West Valley City for his widowed mother.

The money was good, Karen Ball acknowledged, but that was not the only reason her son went back to work in Iraq. "He felt as though he had more to contribute," she said.

"You cannot have had an intimate conversation with my brother … and conclude that he would have done anything, anything at all, other than out of love and defense of those people," said Ball's older brother, Troy.

"I'd have him on my side at any time," said Angie Oldham, who works with Ball as a security officer at the Salt Lake City Justice Courts building and is his classmate at Salt Lake Community College's police academy, from where he is scheduled to graduate later this month. Under court order, Ball will be permitted to carry a gun while training and working, but will have to turn in his sidearm at the end of each shift.

David Attridge, Ball's academy supervisor, said he has had a number of conversations with Ball about what occurred at Nisoor Square, and "he's been pretty adamant in stating that they didn't fire until they were fired upon."

That is not, however, what investigators have concluded.

When hell broke loose » In a meticulous probe that took the FBI and others more than a year to complete and involved hundreds of witness interviews, investigators resolved that none of the victims were armed. They also found fault in the explanation, maintained by Blackwater and being employed by defense attorneys for the accused men, that the contractors had come under attack and were fighting for their lives.

"While there were dangers in Baghdad in 2007, there were also ordinary people going about their lives," said Pat Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security. In Nisoor Square, Rowan said, the decisions of a small number of men cost many innocent people their lives. It also brought to international light the brutal tactics being used by some security contractors that many Iraqis had been complaining about for years.

Mahdi Abdul-Khudor, who lost an eye in the incident, said he hoped the court would punish the contractors. "This matter makes me happy, and I hope they will receive a just penalty," Khudor said. "They took my eye, the better part of me. I hope the court will give me justice."

Khalid Ibrahim said his father, Ibrahim Abid, a 78-year-old gardener, was killed when he was caught in the shooting while driving home. Ibrahim said his mother was overwhelmed by grief and died six months later.

"The indictment of the Blackwater members is good news for us because the killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians," he said.

The incident that claimed Ibrahim Abid's life began as a Blackwater convoy of four heavily-armed vehicles known as "Raven 23" left Baghdad's Green Zone -- allegedly without permission from military officials -- in response to a roadside bomb attack on another Blackwater convoy. Before Raven 23 could get there, however, it was slowed by traffic in Nisoor Square.

As the convoy began to pull around the traffic, investigators believe, a white Kia sedan pulled close to one of the contractor's trucks. Prosecutors say there is no way the driver of the Kia should have been mistaken for a threat, but one of the contractors nonetheless fired his assault rifle into the sedan, killing its driver and passenger.

And that, prosecutors say, is when hell broke loose.

Death without warning » The first victim was Ahmed Haitham Ahmed, a 20-year-old medical student who was shot in the head, apparently with no warning. Next to die was his 46-year-old mother, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum, whose body was riddled by American bullets, according to U.S. investigators.

Also dead was Ali Khalil Abdul, a 54-year-old blacksmith who was shot in the chest while driving his motorcycle. Car dealer Osama Fadhil Abbas was killed as he stepped from his truck. Taxi driver Mahdi Sahib Nasir died when he was shot in the side.

In a Monday press conference, prosecutors noted that one man had been shot even as he held his arms above his head in surrender. And a grenade allegedly launched by the contractors had found its way into a nearby girls' school.

Prosecutors allege that there had been "no attempt to provide reasonable warnings" to those who came under attack.

"Iraqi citizens were going to lunch, stopping at the market, traveling with their families and children," said Joseph Persichini Jr., FBI assistant director-in-charge at the bureau's Washington Field Office, which led the investigation. "The individuals charged today displayed a blatant disregard for the core values of the United States Constitution and failed to adhere to the rule of law and the respect for human life."

In the heat of passion » There is little, yet, with which to reconcile the dueling emerging pictures of Ball and the other defendants.

In court Monday afternoon, attorneys noted that Ball and two others suffered from post-traumatic stress as a result of earlier combat tours in Iraq -- though no specific motive has been alleged other than as an explanation for the charge of manslaughter, rather than murder.

"The charge that we've levied… is voluntary manslaughter," Rowan explained. "This is an unlawful killing upon sudden quarrel or heat of passion."

Inherent in that charge, Rowan said, was an acknowledgement that "there may be mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense … that the offense occurred in a difficult situation."

"We take no pleasure in charging individuals whose job was to protect Americans," added Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

But, the prosecutors said, none of that excuses what happened in Nisoor Square.

As such, Persichini said, the accused men "must be held accountable for their actions, not just for the integrity of the American people but for the Iraqi men, women and children whose lives have been destroyed."

But for some the answers are not so simple as finding someone to blame.

A deadly balance » Slipping into the back of the courtroom on Monday afternoon was a tall woman with curly blond hair and a solemn expression on her face.

Carol Thomas Young did not know Ball or any of the other defendants. She does not know what happened in Nisoor Square. But perhaps more than anyone in the courtroom, Young understands the life and death decisions that security contractors in Iraq are forced to make.

It has been three and a half years since Young's son, 27-year-old security contractor Brandon Thomas, was killed in Baghdad when a suicide car bomber plowed into his truck in a crowded Baghdad intersection. And not a week goes by in which Young doesn't question whether her son's life might have been spared if different decisions had been made on that day.

Young said her son sometimes complained about the posture taken by some of Blackwater's contractors.

"They had tactics that were a little more aggressive than what he thought was best," she said. "But what can I say about that? He was killed and they came home."

Young was saddened by what is already being said about the accused contractors. She winces at words like "mercenary" and sighs over those whose verdict, long before a jury hears the case, is "baby killer."

She knows that some would express similar sentiments about her son, too.

"I don't know what happened in this case," said Thomas Young, a former U.S. marshal who acknowledged the possibility that the men may indeed have acted criminally. "But I know the men who do this work. They don't go over there looking to stir up trouble. Trouble finds them."

And sometimes, she said, it costs them their lives.


Julia Lyon, Nate Carlisle, Jason Bergreen and Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report. The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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