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Marine accused by member of his squad

Times Staff Writer

A Marine squad leader executed five Iraqi men after a roadside bomb blast killed a Marine and then told squad members to falsely claim that the men were shot while running away, a member of his squad testified Friday.

Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz said he saw Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich fire his M-16 at the five as they stood beside a taxi in which they had been riding in the Iraqi village of Haditha, some with their hands locked behind their heads. He said Wuterich then walked over to the bodies and pumped more bullets into them.

“He went to each and shot at them,” Dela Cruz said. “The muzzle [of his rifle] was about a foot from their upper torsos.”

Wuterich faces 12 counts of unpremeditated murder, five for the men who had been in the taxi and seven for civilians who were killed in two houses.

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Dela Cruz, 24, was initially charged in the deaths of the five men, but those charges were dropped in exchange for his testimony. During that testimony he admitted that he, too, shot the five as they lay on the ground and that he urinated on one of the bodies.

Dela Cruz said that several hours after the killings, Wuterich told him that if he were ever questioned by officers, he should say that the five men were shot while fleeing from the scene of the bombing. Under the rules of engagement taught to Marines, Iraqis fleeing the scene of a roadside bomb explosion can be shot in the back, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing for another Marine.

Wuterich, 27, is among four enlisted Marines who were charged with murder in the Haditha case. The hearing officer at his Article 32 preliminary hearing, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of Marine Forces Central Command, as to whether the case should go to court-martial, be dismissed, or handled through an administrative process.

After similar hearings, Ware recommended that Mattis drop charges against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, who were accused of killing Iraqis, including women and children, in three houses where Marines were searching for insurgents.

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Mattis dropped charges against Sharratt but has not yet made a decision on Tatum.

Four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for not launching a war crimes investigation of the Nov. 19, 2005, incident, in which Marines killed 24 civilians after the roadside blast that killed a Marine and injured two others. Charges were dropped against one of the four officers and are pending against the other three.

Dela Cruz said that a week before the Haditha blast, he and Wuterich were talking about a similar explosion that had injured a Marine.

“He made a comment that if we ever get hit again, that we should kill everybody in the vicinity to teach them a lesson,” Dela Cruz said.

Prosecutors assert that Wuterich, as the squad leader, led his Marines into carrying out that vindictive vow. Defense attorneys will contend that, in the three houses, Wuterich and other Marines opened fire after hearing the metallic sound of AK-47s.

Ware concluded in the cases of Sharratt and Tatum that the Marines, in searching the houses, had acted within their training, and that the killing of civilians, while horrific, did not constitute a criminal offense.

The Sharratt and Tatum cases, however, did not involve accusations involving the five men in the taxi.

Dela Cruz testified that he lied to investigators at first, telling them the five were running and that “trigger-happy” Iraqi soldiers, who were riding with the Marines, killed them.

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“I didn’t want to get in trouble,” he said.

Defense attorneys have promised to present evidence to support their client’s assertion that the five were running away. The hearing resumes Wednesday.

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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