The neighbors of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales expressed surprise Friday that the quiet, good-natured family man they knew is the soldier accused of the massacre of 16 men, women and children in Afghanistan.
“Bob’s a normal guy,” former neighbor Paul Wholberg said, pausing, then adding, “Not normal now but, yeah...”
Bales, 38, his wife Karilyn and their two young children, a 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, lived in a two-story house in Lake Tapps, a small bedroom community about 36 miles southwest of Seattle. He was deployed to Afghanistan in December with the 2nd Infanty Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade out of nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
An 11-year veteran of the military, Bales is accused of sneaking into a small Afghan village last Sunday and shooting to death 16 civilians, including many children.
Before he came to the Pacific Northwest, Bales had roots in the Midwest. His friends from Ohio have said he was motivated by a desire to help people. One friend said Bales made a career change from financial advisor to soldier for that very reason.
"He had such a big heart," said his friend Steven Berling.
Nor was there any indication back home in Ohio that something was amiss with Bales. Leon Spangler, a neighbor of his in-laws, said Bales had recently spoken to his father-in-law.
"Last week he says "I was talking to Bob, talking about going bear hunting when his term is up,' and he says 'that's on me, we'll do it'," said Spangler.
The Bales’ house in Lake Tapps sits dark and empty now. Bales wife and children were moved onto the Lewis-McChord base for their protection. One report said the house was put up for sale Monday; there is a lockbox on the door.
Bales, who has been in military custody since the shooting, was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Friday to await the outcome of the military investigation. He has not yet been charged.
His defense team, which includes civilian attorneys John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan, and military defense counsel Major Thomas Hurley, released a statement saying that the attorneys plan to meet with Bales at Fort Leavenworth.
"Sergeant Bales' family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services," the statement said.
An Army news release issued late Friday said Bales is being held in pre-trial confinement at a "state-of-the-art medium/minimum" facility at Leavenworth. He is in "his own cell and not in a four-person bay," it added.
Those who knew him in Lake Tapps said he was a good man, that he and his wife were private but friendly people. Some said they weren't spotted for months at a time even when they were home. But then Bales had served three combat tours in Iraq before his fateful deployment to Afghanistan in December.
The last time Wholberg saw Bales – ‘Bob’ to his friends – was in December, as Bales was getting ready to go to Afghanistan.
“He was getting ready to go back there,” Wholberg said. “I was leaving for a trip (and) told him: Be safe. He said, ‘Yeah, no problem, I will. See you when I get back.’ ”
Wholberg said of his neighbor, “Good guy, fun to be with. Never thought something like this would happen to him.”
Wholberg said he had a couple of barbecues with the Bales family and also had dinner together occasionally at a local pizza parlor.
“I’m really surprised,” neighbor Beau Britt said when told the accused killer was Bales. “Him being deployed four times, I can sympathize; he’s probably got some problems.”
Another neighbor, Jeremy Miller, said he was surprised at the news, too. He said Bales was committed to serving the United States and “loved our country – I’m sure he still does.”
Bales volunteered for the Army two months after the9/11 terrorist attacks. Beginning in late 2003, he spent about three years in Iraq with his three deployments there.
Browne, one of the Seattle attorneys hired by the Bales family to represent the soldier, said Bales' wife and in-laws were just as shocked at the news as everyone else.
Browne said he had spoken by phone with the soldier Thursday and his attitude was one of "shock ... distance."
But he said he was wary of why the soldier was deployed to Afghanistan after three tours of Iraq in which Bales lost part of a foot and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Bales was told that his brigade would not deploy again but that changed suddenly and he arrived at the base in Kandahar province not too long ago.
"I am confused why they would send him back to Afghanistan," Browne said. "There was no 'maybe he shouldn't go' discussion."
According to conversations he has had with his client's family in recent days, the attorney said the soldier did not want to deploy to Afghanistan.
"He was told that he was not going to be redeployed," Browne said. "The family was counting on him not being redeployed. I think it would be fair to say he and the family were not happy that he was going back."
In describing his latest client, Browne painted a picture of a decorated, career soldier who joined the military after the 2001 terrorist attacks and had spent his 11-year Army life at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. Browne called him a devoted husband and father to his two young children who never made any derogatory remarks about Muslims or Afghans.
Browne said he and Bales' family were offended by media reports that marital discord at home may have placed additional stress on Bales. He said those reports were "nonsense."
He said he did not know whether alcohol may have been involved, as reported by The New York Times, but imagined that "stress was a factor."
"For God's sake, who is not going to be under stress in Afghanistan in a small camp where there is 20 people (Americans) in the middle of nowhere?" Browne said.
He also said that he was told by Bales' family that the day before the slayings, someone on his base was "gravely injured" and that "affected the whole base," Browne said.
The soldier is accused of leaving the remote outpost of Camp Belambay on foot early Sunday and heading to neighboring villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
In the villages, the soldier opened fire, killing nine children, three women and four men, witnesses and Afghan authorities said.
Browne also confirmed reports the soldier could face the death penalty, if convicted.
"There is a discussion of the death penalty, understandably, I think, in this situation, which makes us very nervous. It's certainly not off the table at this point. Our hope is that maybe it will be," he said.
"We don't know anything about (his) state of mind. We don't know anything about the facts of the case, and whether they can prove what he's accused of."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times