First it was Teresa Nieves, shot in the head by her husband.
Next came Jennifer Wright, mother of three, strangled in her bedroom.
Then Andrea Floyd, silenced the same day she asked for a divorce.
Then came Marilyn Griffin, who was stabbed 50 times and set on fire.
A string of wife killings, four in six weeks, all allegedly involving U.S. soldiers stationed at Ft. Bragg, has sent the Army’s top brass on a distressing search for what went wrong.
On Monday, commanders said the deaths had nothing to do with the line of work--three of the four suspects are Special Forces soldiers recently back from Afghanistan. They also said the men didn’t know one another.
“There’s no linkage we could find,” said Col. Tad Davis, garrison commander at Ft. Bragg, who called the killings “an unexpected sequence of events.”
But local authorities said all the cases came with warnings.
“Each of these couples were having serious friction,” said Lt. James E. Black of the Cumberland County sheriff’s office. “There were definite signs.”
A high-ranking army chaplain now fears there could be a “contagion” at the country’s largest Army base, home to 45,000 soldiers.
“I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years and never seen anything like this,” said Lt. Col. Glen Bloomsprom, head of the Army’s family ministry office. “Maybe one of these guys heard about a murder and that put the idea in his head. You see that a lot with suicides.”
Whatever the cause, the toll is steep: four Army wives dead, two highly trained soldiers lost to suicide, two others in jail and nine children without parents.
Army officials say the deaths are leading them to reexamine their domestic violence programs, which have been expanded in recent years. Already there is a host of services, from couple counseling to confidential chaplain visits to upbeat, we’re-not-here-to-blame therapy sessions called “marriage enrichment seminars.”
“There’s so much support here,” said one officer’s wife who asked not to be quoted by name. “That’s why this is shocking. These women must have felt so alone.”
The vast Ft. Bragg military installation, located in central North Carolina, has three gas stations, nine schools, 308 miles of paved road and 55,000 personnel, including civilians. It’s the heart of a larger military community that includes thousands of Army families and retirees, surplus stores, gun shops and fluttering flags just about everywhere.
Few people had paid attention to the rash of killings until the Fayetteville Observer published a story Friday pointing out that all had allegedly been carried out by local soldiers. That drew the attention of the national media--and Pentagon generals.
“Undoubtedly, it’s raised command’s interest,” said Bloomsprom, the high-ranking chaplain. “All of us are extremely sad because we could have prevented this.”
The incidents began on June 11, police said, when Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, a solider in the 3rd Special Forces Group, shot his wife in the head with a .40-caliber pistol and then fatally shot himself. They had been arguing all night, neighbors said. Nieves had just returned from Afghanistan two days before. He had asked to come back early to “resolve” personal issues, police said.
Two weeks later, Jennifer Wright vanished. Her husband, William, a wiry master sergeant in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, said he had no idea what happened. He returned from a stint in Afghanistan in May.
On July 19, Wright confessed to strangling his wife and burying her on the base near a firing range, police said. The two had been married 14 years, with three children, though Wright had moved out and was living in the barracks.
That same day Sgt. 1st-Class Brandon Floyd, a member of the elite, top-secret Delta Force, shot his wife in the head during an argument. Then he turned the gun on himself. Andrea Floyd had asked for a divorce shortly before the killing, said Black.
Brandon Floyd was a triathlete and a football star, “one of those all-American types with everything going for him,” Black said. He had returned from Afghanistan earlier this spring.
Floyd was set to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery until the secretary of the Army postponed the funeral on Friday.
The fourth Ft. Bragg killing, which did not involve a Special Forces soldier, occurred on July 9. Police said Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin of the 37th Engineer Battalion stabbed his estranged wife 50 times, then set her body on fire. Griffin lived with another woman, who was pregnant, and he and his wife had a long history of marital problems, police said. He confessed after he was arrested, police said.
Studies have shown that military couples have a higher rate of domestic abuse, sometimes two to five times that of the general population. But military officials and Special Forces veterans doubt that it was work that drove the men to allegedly kill their wives.
“I don’t think our jobs create unique problems that would make someone do this,” said retired Air Force Col. John Carney, head of a Special Operations college scholarship fund. " ... There’s more stress for all of us these days.”
Black, who has thick folders on his desk detailing the murder cases, said: “These soldiers left with problems and they came back with problems. Marital issues don’t disappear just because you go off to Afghanistan.”