A War Hero, a Condemned Killer

Times Staff Writer

As he deploys tens of thousands of American troops to the Middle East, President Bush now must decide whether to block the upcoming execution of a highly decorated career soldier who apparently suffers brain damage from his Gulf War experience.

Louis Jones Jr. came home in 1991 a changed man after the war with Iraq, according to psychiatric reports and family testimony. He drank too much, divorced and eventually left the Army after 22 years, retiring as a master sergeant in the Airborne Rangers. His ex-wife described him as "very crazed ... panicked ... spinning out of control."

On a February evening in 1995, he kidnapped a female recruit at a base near here, raped her and bludgeoned her to death with a tire iron. Because the crime occurred on a military facility, Jones was tried in Lubbock federal court. He was convicted by a jury that rejected his claims that he had been traumatized by his experiences in battle in Grenada and the Persian Gulf.

Jones has exhausted his legal appeals and is scheduled to die March 18. He would be just the third person executed by the federal government since 1963. The others were Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh and Texas drug kingpin Juan Garza, both in June 2001.

His last hope is Bush, who just presided over a war in Afghanistan after which a number of U.S. troops showed signs of emotional distress. Last year, for example, three special operations soldiers returned to Ft. Bragg, N.C., and allegedly killed their wives.

A clemency petition was filed Dec. 30 by Jones' appellate attorney, Timothy W. Floyd of Lubbock, asking that Jones' sentence be commuted to life without parole. The Justice Department is consulting with the White House on how to proceed.

The request comes at a time when public debate about the fairness of capital punishment has been renewed. Last weekend, such concerns prompted the outgoing Illinois governor to commute the death sentences of 167 inmates.

In Jones' case, he admits to the killing. But his petition includes new medical evidence strongly suggesting that he developed brain damage from "the most severe form of Gulf War Syndrome" after continued exposure to toxins in the war.

His unit repeatedly underwent "poison gas alerts" as they moved into areas where the air was filled with chemical fallout, after Iraqi weapon storage sites had been hit by U.S. bombs, the petition claims.

Gulf War Syndrome is an unscientific term used to describe a range of medical problems that Gulf War veterans suffer two to three times more often than veterans not deployed to the region. But numerous studies have found that while the illnesses are real, they cannot be traced to any specific Gulf War exposure.

The findings of Jones' brain damage were developed by Dr. Robert W. Haley, a defense witness and expert on Gulf War diseases who is director of Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas at Dallas. The diagnosis had not been made at the time of Jones' trial.

"Mr. Jones, and many thousands of other similarly exposed soldiers, returned from the Gulf War with quite debilitating symptoms," Haley concluded.

He determined that Jones suffered from "irritability and hostility, and numerous neurological symptoms." He said Jones' chemical exposures "caused brain cell damage" and that this was a "likely explanation for his crime."

The doctor noted that at Jones' trial, his lawyers argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, fallout from his service in the Gulf and in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. He said the lawyers were not then aware of the significant brain damage, and that the nation had not yet come to terms with how devastating diseases associated with the Gulf War would become.

But prosecutors rejected that argument, noting that Jones planned the murder and carefully tried to cover up the crime.

In a letter to the president that Jones typed from death row at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., he acknowledged "the horrible crimes and sins which I committed" and his remorse for taking the life of 19-year-old Tracie Joy McBride, an Army private at Goodfellow Air Force Base at San Angelo, Texas.

Jones also touched on his personal failures since the Gulf War.

"Mr. President," he wrote, "there are many, many lusts of this world which we, as mortals, are tempted by.... Regardless of how little or how much any temptation influenced me, I could have been just as strong a man morally as I was a good soldier.... "

He signed it, "Humbly, Louis Jones Jr., Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired."

Jones had no prior criminal record and his military career was exemplary, according to his Army personnel file. Along with fighting two wars, he served as a platoon sergeant and Ranger instructor, and won numerous awards and citations.

"You have served your country well, and will be missed," he was told on his official discharge papers. "Your performance brings great credit upon yourself, the Ranger Training Brigade and the United States Army."

Whether Jones' violent act had anything to do with the emotional or physiological effects of war, or both, today's military is mindful of what happened at Ft. Bragg and plans enhanced psychological services for a war in Iraq.

"Often this is where these problems get picked up," said Army Col. James Stokes, a combat and operational stress control officer. "When you get into a shooting situation, you see people killed and good friends injured and you are in danger yourself."

Jeanne Stellman, a professor of public health at Columbia University, has studied Vietnam veterans over the last 15 years and found that "depression, anxiety and other psychological problems" still bother large numbers of them 30 years after that war ended.

But, she said, "the Army has a job to fight a war and to protect our country, and we as people just seem to think that this can be done without damage. It can't."

The 52-year-old Jones came from a poor and troubled childhood, often the victim of physical and sexual abuse, according to evidence at his trial. It was in the Army where he excelled.

Mark Cunningham, a psychologist who examined Jones and testified at his trial, said the military became his "primary life support," so much so that he referred warmly to the Army simply as "Sam."

But Dr. Stephen E. Peterson, a psychiatrist who was a trial witness, said Jones also suffered emotionally. In Grenada he parachuted into live enemy fire. He felled an enemy soldier with sniper fire, and saw close-up others being killed by howitzer shells. In Operation Desert Storm, he made his way through the burning oil fields.

"This man had a lot of stress in the military," Peterson said. "

Back home, his third wife, Sandra Lane, an Army staff sergeant, noted that he had lost his humor, suffered daily headaches and drank too much. He became domineering and then, she said, he hit her.

Jones sought help from a base anger management program, but classes were canceled. He was referred to a family shelter on the base. He visited a mental health clinic and a chaplain and the judge advocate general's office. In the spring of 1993, he took a standard retirement and left the Army.

He tried college but quit after earning Ds. He ran through a series of low-paying jobs delivering newspapers, working in fast-food restaurants and driving a bus.

Jones was arrested within two weeks of McBride's disappearance, and led the police to her body under a bridge. He told authorities that he kidnapped her thinking she looked like ex-wife Sandra. He also described an out-of-body experience during the abduction and murder.

"There was like a dream," he said. "What am I doing? ... Anger, evil, all of that wasn't me."

Jones also told Dr. Jonathan H. Pincus, a neurology specialist, that as he killed the woman he saw black smoke billowing up like in Kuwait, and he heard laughing.

"It was Satan's voice," Jones said, standing on a chair to dramatize the moment. "There were 3 million things going around in my mind."

But prosecutor Tanya Pierce said Jones carefully orchestrated the killing and tried to cover up evidence, even making McBride walk on towels in his apartment so as not to pick up carpet fibers on her boots. She said he knew what he was doing.

"There was a lot more than that he just went off his nut," the prosecutor said. "It didn't hold water for the jury."

Jones apologized in court to the McBride family. "If I live from now until the end of eternity with the pain that I have, it would never scratch the surface of the pain that you have....I took a life that wasn't mine...." The Rev. J. Jason Fry, a Texas minister who befriended Jones, has also written the president asking for leniency. He said Jones is a born-again Christian and he would be no danger if left to live out his life in prison.

Fry also found "tragic irony" in Jones' fate, and what it may portend for future soldiers returning from Iraq.

"The federal government is poised to execute this one who clearly suffers from this service-related ailment, which likely played a role in his criminal act," Fry told Bush.

"At the very same time, the same government is sending other men and women into harm's way, to the same region to defend our country."

Just, he added, "as Louis Jones has done."

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