Widows pursue justice in soldiers' slayings

From the moment Siobhan Esposito heard the words "not guilty," she swore she wouldn't give up until someone was punished for her husband's slaying.

The Army said a soldier in Capt. Phillip Esposito's New York National Guard unit in Tikrit, Iraq, detonated a Claymore mine that killed the captain and a fellow officer as they played the board game Risk one night in June 2005.

The lone suspect, Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez, was acquitted at a court-martial after defense lawyers challenged the incomplete or conflicting forensic evidence and witness statements in a largely circumstantial case. Prosecutors also lost a key ruling to allow a potentially incriminating statement by Martinez.

Since the verdict in 2008, Siobhan Esposito and Barbara Allen, the widow of the other officer, 1st Lt. Louis Allen, have waged a lonely struggle for justice.

"No soldier should ever fear his comrades," Esposito said. "My act of justice to the memory of my husband will be to fight for reform until the mistakes that led to the deaths of our soldiers are corrected."

Small success

The two women have achieved some small measure of satisfaction. In January, Esposito believes she helped derail the career of Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, the general in charge of their husbands' National Guard unit. Taluto withdrew his nomination to be director of the Army National Guard after Esposito complained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"For the first time since my husband's death, I have been able to look our daughter in the face and tell her that someone who has been horrible to her father was held accountable for their actions," Esposito said after Taluto withdrew.

But mainly they have faced disappointment and a growing sense that the military is wearying of their complaints.

Neither the Army nor the federal government can retry Martinez, and state courts have no jurisdiction in the case, according to military law experts.

Eric Durr, director of public affairs for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, declined to discuss the case.

"We're just not going to engage anymore with Mrs. Esposito," Durr said.

The slayings of Capt. Esposito and Lt. Allen are among only a handful of cases from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of a soldier allegedly killing a superior officer -- known as "fragging."

The case is the only one from the current wars in which the accused has been cleared; Martinez left the military last year.

During the trial, there was no question of bad blood between Martinez and Esposito.

At least two dozen soldiers and officers testified about threats and insults made by Martinez, whom Esposito had disciplined for his poor performance as a supply sergeant.

Witnesses said Martinez told them that he was going to kill Esposito and "should a mortar round come down and kill the commander, I wouldn't cry about it."

Prosecutors were so confident of their case that they rejected a signed offer by Martinez in 2006 to plead guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty.

But the trial went poorly. There were no witnesses to the incident and the circumstantial evidence was not enough to persuade the court.

When Martinez was cleared, Allen screamed out in court, "You slaughtered our husbands -- and that's it?"

"Is this the United States of America?" Esposito shouted.

Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command, said the investigation did not identify any suspects other than Martinez.

A push for change

Since the trial, the widows have pushed for the military to strictly enforce regulations that prohibit threats against superiors and require soldiers to report violations of "good order and discipline."

If someone had taken action, Esposito said, "two soldiers would be alive today, two women would have their husbands and five children would have their fathers."

In a letter to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Esposito accused Taluto and his command of tolerating "incompetence and lack of discipline" and displaying "an inexcusable pattern of contempt" in failing to punish anyone for not reporting Martinez's threats.

Webb asked the committee to delay Taluto's nomination until it looked into the widow's allegations.

Durr said Taluto had decided to retire before he was persuaded to apply for the position. He withdrew so that confirmation for a new candidate could proceed, Durr said.

In a statement Jan. 28, Taluto said, "I believe this prolonged confirmation process has become a distraction."

The hardest task for both widows has been explaining to their children that no one has been held accountable for their fathers' deaths.

Esposito has discussed the killings only generally with her 6-year-old daughter, Madeline, who was 19 months old when her father died.

Allen had to close the curtains in her house every night because her son Trevor, who was 6 when his father died, said watching the sunset saddened him because it made him think of his dad's soul going to heaven.

The widows' ordeal has prompted both to seek master's degrees to better understand law and justice. Esposito is studying law and crime policy, and Allen criminal justice.

Allen has enlisted a former congressman and a retired admiral in her quest to persuade the Pentagon to investigate the handling of the case. She is writing a book titled "Duty, Honor, Murder."

Casualties of war

Allen has also petitioned the military to change its definition of combat casualties. Esposito and Allen were not eligible for Purple Hearts because they weren't killed in combat by the enemy. Allen said Martinez was the enemy.

"By refusing to acknowledge that Lou was killed by an enemy, the government refuses to acknowledge the truth," she said. "Lou's legacy is incomplete, and I can't abide by that."

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) has introduced a bill that would make soldiers killed in the Ft. Hood shootings eligible for the Purple Heart.

A spokesman for Carter said the congressman would consider expanding the bill later to include cases like that of Esposito and Allen.

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, N.Y., which honors medal recipients, is near Allen's home. She said she had to explain to her four sons why their father wasn't included.

Recently, Allen saw Trevor, now 11, reading a tourist brochure about the Purple Heart Hall of Honor. When he noticed his mother watching him, he sighed and put the brochure away.

"I knew what he was thinking," she said, "and it broke my heart again."

david.zucchino@

latimes.com

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