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Marine Charged in Shooting Saw Death Up Close in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Even before he went to Iraq, the noise from nightclubs in his neighborhood here infuriated Marine Sgt. Daniel Cotnoir. The 33-year-old reservist regularly called police to complain about raucous crowds spilling onto Broadway, one of this hardscrabble city’s busiest boulevards.

But after he returned late last year from a 10-month tour in the Marines’ mortuary affairs unit, Cotnoir’s patience snapped. He screamed at revelers outside his family’s funeral home that his wife and two kids were trying to sleep. When a bottle hurtled through his open window in response at 2:50 a.m. last Sunday, Cotnoir grabbed his shotgun and fired once -- injuring a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old.

The incident did not entirely surprise those who knew Cotnoir and who had heard his stories about his grisly work in Iraq. “He was not the same person when he came back as when he left,” said Bruce Reynolds, who has known the Marine since Cotnoir was 7 years old.

With Cotnoir undergoing a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation at a state hospital, the case has emerged as a beacon for the toll of stress and trauma on troops in America’s latest war. Cotnoir, selected by the civilian-run Marine Corps Times as the 2005 Marine of the Year, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include two counts of attempted murder.

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“The unimaginable stresses that people are subjected to in Iraq and Afghanistan -- real wartime environments -- are causing very severe emotional strain,” said David P. Sheldon, a former Navy lawyer who represents military personnel and has had 10 cases this year involving claims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For Cotnoir, the usual strains of war were compounded by his work in the mortuary at Camp Taqaddum, in the desert west of Baghdad. Cotnoir was deployed as a small-arms repairman, but after he got to Iraq, his superiors decided to put his civilian specialty to work.

Cotnoir’s family had run Racicot Funeral Home in this old mill city about 25 miles north of Boston for generations. He grew up in an apartment above the shop. After he became a mortician, he married and moved his family there.

In Iraq, Cotnoir’s unit was responsible for retrieving the bodies of dead Marines and soldiers and preparing them to be shipped home. The unit’s only mortician, Cotnoir appeared unusually affected by the stress.

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“Because I do it in the civilian world, everyone says it’s easy,” Cotnoir said in a Marine Corps Times interview after he was named Marine of the Year. “It’s not. It’s hard. The stories I’ve gained from my deployment aren’t the kind of stories you share. No one gets to die peacefully in their sleep over there.”

Cotnoir was assigned to “bag and tag” body parts, wash the clothing of the dead and collect personal property to be sent back with the body. The sight of young, healthy Marines torn to pieces by roadside bombs left Cotnoir shaken.

“At home, many of the people are strangers,” Cotnoir said in an April 2004 interview with the Los Angeles Times in Iraq. “But here, it’s like losing a brother every day.”

While other mortuary unit Marines slept in tents, Cotnoir volunteered to spend nights in the unit’s headquarters, a former bomb shelter for Saddam Hussein’s air force. Beside his cot was a stack of metal caskets wrapped in American flags, used to ship bodies home. The motto of the mortuary unit -- “No One Left Behind” -- is spelled out on the roof of the shelter.

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Cotnoir’s unit helped to recover the bodies of 182 dead Americans, 56 of them during furious fighting in spring 2004. To retrieve the bodies, Cotnoir and the others often had to drive through insurgent gunfire while battles continued.

The unit also handled the identification of some Iraqi civilians and returned their bodies to grieving relatives. “The children are the toughest,” Cotnoir said in the 2004 interview.

But Cotnoir was moved by the pictures and love letters he found on the bodies of fallen comrades. “They all had dreams,” he said.

After returning to the U.S., Cotnoir moved back into the apartment above the red brick funeral home. The block is crammed with small businesses, most with signs in Spanish, reflecting a Latino population that is growing in many of this state’s old industrial communities. Racicot Funeral Home is between two of the 79 nightclubs in Lawrence, a city of 72,000.

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Reynolds, owner of an auto repair shop next to Cotnoir’s family business, said the noise from the closest club, Punto Final, had been a problem for at least six years. Reynolds said Cotnoir and others had complained repeatedly to town officials, but to no avail. He said business owners had grown accustomed to finding their parking lots filled with bottles and other paraphernalia on Monday mornings.

“You ask how this happened,” said Reynolds, 52. “If I stood here and poked you, over and over, for six years, would you put up with it? You mix that with a guy who just came back from Iraq, what do you expect?”

Cotnoir spoke on occasion about what he did in Iraq, Reynolds said. One of the things Reynolds said his friend talked about was handling the burned and mutilated bodies of civilian contractors hung by a mob from a bridge in Fallouja.

Cotnoir’s lawyer, Robert F. Kelley, said his client was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital after a court-appointed psychologist said he was not “reality-based” when he fired out his window.

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Prosecutor Poppi Hagan said in court that some people who had been at the club saw Cotnoir standing at his window with a gun. But they told authorities that they thought the weapon was fake.

“I just thought he wanted to scare us to get away from the area,” Stephanie Tejeda told the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune newspaper. “Who shoots into an open crowd?”

Kelley said Cotnoir fired “the equivalent of a warning shot” when he pointed his gun at an empty area of ground. Lissette Cumba, 15, and Kelvin Castro, 20, sustained minor injuries from bullet fragments that ricocheted from the sidewalk. Cumba’s mother told a local television station that Cotnoir needed “help, not jail.”

That opinion was shared by Rob Arsenault, a school custodian whose daughter dated Cotnoir when both were in middle school.

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“He was wrong in what he did, but when you get to that point, you can understand how something like that could happen,” Arsenault said. “This guy served his country. He not only did what he was asked to do, he did more than he was asked to do. He’s a good kid.”

Nestor de Jesus, whose accounting office is directly opposite the nightclub, said Cotnoir should not have pulled out his gun.

“But right now I am feeling even madder that a 15-year-old was out at a club at 2:50 in the morning,” De Jesus said.

Lawrence Police Chief John J. Romero responded to the incident by proposing an ordinance that would ban anyone younger than 21 from being in an establishment after 11 p.m. if liquor is served there.

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Kelley said Cotnoir would appear in court again Sept. 2. Kelley said he was researching cases in which Iraq veterans had “buckled under stress,” but said he would wait for the medical report before deciding whether that would play a role in Cotnoir’s defense. Cotnoir had received therapy at a veterans hospital after returning from Iraq.

In Washington, Sheldon, the lawyer handling cases involving post-traumatic stress disorder claims, said, “I think you are going to continue to see, as this war progresses, further breakdowns and further incidents where people act out and get into trouble.”

Robert Hodierne, managing editor for Army Times Publishing Co., called the incident involving Cotnoir “a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder,” adding: “It would be hard to find a better example.”

Hodierne said the publishing company -- which is owned by Gannett Co. and is the parent company of the Marine Times newspaper -- would “absolutely not” retract the award bestowed on Cotnoir in July.

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“No matter what may turn out to have happened early Sunday morning in Lawrence, it has taken nothing away from his sacrifice and his service in Iraq,” Hodierne said. “That’s what he was honored for, and we are proud to have done it.”

Mehren reported from Lawrence, Perry from Iraq.


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