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For two widows, a soldier's trial is their battlefield

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Day after day, the widows sit silently in court, a few feet from the soldier accused of murdering their husbands. They listen as their husbands' violent deaths play out again and again in witness testimony. Sometimes, they say, the defendant stares at them with a contempt that both terrifies and enrages them.

Barbara Allen and Siobhan Esposito have put their lives on hold since June 7, 2005, the day prosecutors say Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez killed their husbands in Iraq. Capt. Phillip Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis Allen died after a claymore mine, a plastic shell filled with 700 steel balls and C-4 explosive, blew up as they played the board game Risk inside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit.

Martinez, a short, stout man with spectacles and clipped hair, is on trial for his life. Barbara and Siobhan have attended more than three years of hearings, determined to see Martinez convicted and given the death penalty.

The two women have found solace and support in their shared ordeal. After sitting through countless hearings in Kuwait and the U.S., they have forged a tight bond. They sometimes finish each other's sentences. Barbara calls Siobhan "my life partner." Siobhan calls Barbara "my faux spouse."

They did not meet until Phillip Esposito's wake but they are now inextricably linked, soul mates for life. Each says she could not have persevered without the other.

The last 3 1/2 years have been emotionally debilitating. The women, in seeking justice for their husbands' deaths, spend weeks at a time away from their children. They have rented apartments in the same complex in nearby Fayetteville, N.C., for the military trial, which began Oct. 22 and will continue into December. Their determination has cost them about $15,000, which they have paid out of their savings and private donations.

They file into court every weekday, past Martinez perched at a defense table, and sit in the front row. They have endured testimony from nearly 100 military witnesses, delivered in crisp, clinical tones that belie the brutality of their husbands' deaths. They have heard the prosecution portray Martinez as a seething, incompetent supply sergeant who openly threatened to kill Esposito, his commander, for disciplining him. They have heard the defense describe a flawed investigation that relied on circumstantial evidence and failed to pursue other potential suspects.

Martinez, 41, is the first soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan to be charged with "fragging" -- killing a direct superior. Four other soldiers have been charged with killing fellow soldiers. The military reported hundreds of fragging incidents during the Vietnam War.

For the two widows, the Martinez case has been marked by painful interludes:

A medical examiner reviewed autopsy photos and described the steel balls that tore through their husbands' vital organs.

A military doctor recalled that Allen, 34, though grievously wounded, joked about his wife being "blond, but . . . really, really smart."

A soldier described how the mine blast wrecked Esposito's quarters, yet somehow left standing on his desk a photo of his infant daughter, Madeline.

A military doctor said Esposito's face was so blackened from the blast that she did not recognize him.

"It's like we're listening to them die again and again and again through everybody's eyes. I just want it to have a happy ending one time," Siobhan said wistfully after court one day, sitting in the dining room in Barbara's apartment.

To hear all this just a few feet from the man they believe killed their husbands is excruciating. "Martinez walked by the other day and shot me a big grin," Barbara said. "It was very demeaning and almost threatening."

Siobhan said she's convinced Martinez believes he'll be found not guilty -- and wants the dead men's widows to know it. "He has made eye contact with both of us, just with contempt," she said.

Capt. Esposito, 30, and Martinez had been at odds for months before their National Guard unit arrived at Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit in spring 2005. From the time the unit prepared to deploy at Ft. Drum, N.Y., Esposito, a squared-away West Point graduate, had been confronting Martinez, described in court as a poorly disciplined and foul-mouthed guardsman who needed a special waiver to qualify for duty. Witnesses said Martinez could not account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing equipment. Esposito eventually required Martinez to have an escort before going into his own supply area. Martinez told fellow soldiers he feared Esposito would get him kicked out of the Guard, costing him $2,859 in monthly pay.

"I hate that [expletive]. I'm going to frag that [expletive]," Martinez said a month before the killings, an Army major testified.

A few weeks before the killings, according to a sergeant, Martinez said of Esposito: "I hope that [expletive] dies."

The two widows were shocked that no one reported the alleged threats, and that no one took precautions. In what a friend has called her "personal jihad," Barbara has pushed for military training to recognize and report signs of threatening or unstable behavior.

"If Phillip and Lou had been trained to recognize these signs and if other soldiers had been trained, maybe this wouldn't have happened," she said. "Next time it could be someone else's husband."

The women are disturbed, too, by the military's designation of their husbands' deaths as non-combat-related, making the officers ineligible for the Purple Heart.

"What I care most about is Lou's legacy," Barbara said. "The best I can do for Lou is to have good things associated with his name, for the kids.

"They are entitled to it," she said. "It's an easy way out for the Army to classify his death this way."

Barbara, 36, is tall and blond, demonstrative and forthright. She once "went loco" while confronting a National Guard colonel about the unreported threats, she recalled.

Siobhan, 34, is slim and dark-eyed, with a gentle, reserved manner. She chooses her words carefully.

"It's very upsetting to be reliving all that -- that's my husband they're talking about," she said of testimony that has described Capt. Esposito, variously, as a dedicated commander who reinforced his soldiers' quarters rather than his own, and a demanding "little Hitler."

After particularly wrenching days in court, the women meet at their apartments and talk into the night, each comforting the other. Their families have grown close. Barbara, who lives in Otisville, N.Y., and her four young sons spent Thanksgiving with Siobhan and her daughter, 5, at their home in Alexandria, Va.

While her husband was in Iraq, Barbara said, she felt isolated from other spouses; National Guard families, unlike Army families, generally are not clustered around a big military base. For Barbara, the nearest spouse was a half-hour away.

Both women have left behind jobs and stable home lives. Barbara worked in real estate and Siobhan was a physical therapist. Lou Allen taught physics and earth sciences in Tuxedo, N.Y., and Phillip Esposito was a project manager for Salomon Smith Barney in Manhattan.

Each woman has struggled to explain her husband's death to her children, who are left in the care of family and friends while their mothers are away in court.

"One minute you're a wife and a mom, and the next minute you're a widow explaining to your children that their daddy is never going to come home," Barbara said.

Even now, more than three years later, her boys are reliving the tragedy. They worry about their mother being a few feet away from the man accused of killing their father, Barbara said. "They ask me: If he was bad, how do you know the soldiers guarding him aren't bad, too? And how do you know he won't try to kill you?"

Siobhan said her daughter, Madeline, tells each new playmate: "My daddy died. My daddy is in heaven."

The two women cherish memories of the last times they saw their husbands alive. For Barbara, it was Memorial Day weekend of 2005, when Lou changed one last diaper as he left home. Ten hours before he died, they saw each other on a video link.

"He had this magnetic energy about him," Barbara said. "He changed my life."

Siobhan last saw her husband on New Year's weekend 2005. A few days before he died, Phillip watched his wife and daughter on a video link.

"He would write me letters, lots of letters, which I still have," Siobhan said of her husband, whom she met in grade school when he threw a sweater at her and she reported him to the teacher. "He was always thinking about other people. He put their needs before his own."

As the trial dragged on this month before a jury of 14 officers and enlisted personnel, there was more testimony about the officers' final hours.

A departing supply sergeant described turning in three claymore mines to Martinez a few weeks before the attack. Several witnesses recalled hearing hand grenade explosions after the land mine detonated, an apparent attempt to mask the attack as an enemy mortar barrage.

A colonel described finding Esposito unconscious and Allen crying out in pain just after the mine exploded. A military doctor described opening Esposito's chest to massage his heart, only to lose him a few minutes later. The doctor performed emergency surgery on Allen, whose liver was bleeding and whose bowels were perforated by steel balls.

"He was just getting sicker and sicker," the doctor said. Then Allen's heart stopped.

The widows are prepared to endure more. They say they will pursue the case until the very end, knowing they face deep disappointment if Martinez is found not guilty, or a long sentencing and appeals process if he is convicted.

"We've just scratched the surface," Siobhan said, her face drawn and her eyes damp after another difficult day in court. "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Zucchino is a Times staff writer.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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