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Did the system fail a soldier?

SHERMAN, Texas — Sgt. John Russell designed his new house here so there would be room for everyone: for him and his wife, Mandy, his wife’s parents and his own. There was a doggie door for Louie and Queenie — “the little ones,” he called them in his emails.

It was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life when he got home from Iraq, he’d say as he shared photos of the latest construction.

After a dispute with a co-worker, Russell fretted that he’d get demoted and would not be able to make the payments.

The sergeant, then 44, plunged into a depression, telling his executive officer at Baghdad’s Camp Stryker that he “didn’t want to be here anymore.” His supervisors took the firing bolt out of his rifle and drove him repeatedly to the combat stress center, but Russell complained he was being mocked by the doctors.

“For the last two days I have been in hell,” Russell wrote in a May 6, 2009, email to his wife. “I am left feeling so terrible you could just never know. These people are not good people, and I think that I am going a little crazy.”

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Five days later, Russell seized a colleague’s Ford Explorer and M-16 rifle and returned to the clinic he’d left about an hour before. He fatally shot four mental health workers and patients before aiming his weapon over a filing cabinet at Sgt. Christian Bueno-Galdos, who was hiding behind it, prosecutors say.

“Oh, God,” Bueno-Galdos screamed as Russell laughed softly — an “evil chuckle,” one survivor called it — and then allegedly aimed a bullet through the sergeant’s right eyebrow.

The Army is seeking the death penalty on five specifications of premeditated murder — the only mass killing of U.S. troops in the Iraq war committed by a fellow American. This week, attorneys are negotiating a plea agreement that would take the death penalty off the table, but still allow the defense to argue that the Army’s mental health system drove Russell to commit the killings.

“They turned a suicide into a homicide,” said civilian defense attorney James Culp.

Prosecutors say that there is ample evidence that Russell was not insane but angry, that he drove to the clinic with a murderous plan and then coolly told police who arrested him what he’d done. “I think I killed some people,” one witness heard him say.

How it began

After the shootings, Mandy Kernchen-Russell sold the house, pocketed the money and filed for separation.

“I’m now 37 years old. And he’s never going to come home anymore,” said Kernchen-Russell, who met Russell in 1997 during his deployment to Bamberg, Germany, and married him two years later.

“He was a good husband. When I came home from work, he had a bath waiting for me. My feet hurt, he’d massage my feet,” she said.

Russell’s mother, Beth, raised him and his three sisters. She said Russell was a nurturing boy — always bringing home stray animals and troubled kids — but struggled with dyslexia at school and dropped out when a medical problem forced him off the football team.

He suffered lingering nerve problems in his extremities that doctors said probably stemmed from his premature birth. From the time he was 2, his legs and head hurt so much that he’d kick his legs and bang his head into a pillow before he could sleep.

“He’d do it for hours at a time.... He might sleep 10 minutes here, a few hours there. Nobody understood exactly what was going on, we just knew he was in pain,” his sister, Lisa Wilson, said from a hospital here shortly before she died of cancer last month.

Russell’s wife said that after five combat deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, he had trouble sleeping and would wake up covered in sweat. But most of his co-workers told Army investigators that Russell seemed fairly happy on his last deployment in 2008, when he worked in a radio and computer repair shop near the Baghdad airport.

The trouble started when senior officers got in the middle of Russell’s attempt to discipline a junior enlisted woman, allowing her to file her own workplace complaint against him.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Sir, are you going to let this happen?’” Capt. Mark Natale recalled at Russell’s pretrial hearing. He erupted in fury, co-workers said, and over the next several days appeared glassy-eyed and bedraggled from not having been to bed. He said he was going to lose the house.

The record shows that Natale and his unit’s noncommissioned officers responded sympathetically and with alarm. “He does not trust anyone, does not think any of us care for him ... and believes that he is better off dead,” the unit chaplain, Capt. Peter Keough, wrote in an urgent email, unsuccessfully seeking to have Russell hospitalized on the day of the shootings.

Days earlier, Russell had seen Maj. Hrysso Fernbach, an Army Reserve psychologist who before the visit had criticized her nurse, Capt. Blaine Ropson, for being “too nice” to patients, Ropson testified. “She felt I needed to be a little sterner. And I think her comment was, ‘I’m going to show you how we should be doing this,’” Ropson said.

She proceeded to question Russell in a “pretty hostile and aggressive” manner, Ropson said. “I felt very uncomfortable.”

On May 11, 2009, Russell met with Lt. Col. Michael Jones, an Army Reserve psychiatrist who the defense argues shouldn’t even have been allowed to be at the clinic; he had been arrested for the second time on drunken driving charges only months before his deployment to Iraq. The visit lasted two or three minutes. Then, he said at the pretrial hearing, Russell abruptly got up and walked out.

Russell, who says he has no memory of the shootings, told Army psychiatrists he does remember the meeting with Jones.

“I don’t want to hear you speak,” he recalled telling the psychiatrist. “Either listen to my problems and help me, or I’ll go kill myself. Choose.”

Jones, he said, leaned “in my face” and said, “Poof, you’re healed.”

The two men wound up in the parking lot, shouting at each other, several witnesses said. Jones told his staff to call the military police, and then tried to persuade Russell to come back in.

“Don’t worry about it, you already made your decision, sir,” Russell told the doctor, according to Staff Sgt. Leah Gates, who was there. “No, soldier, you made your decision,” Jones reportedly replied.

Russell was allowed to leave. When he returned later that day and the shooting began, Jones leaped out a window and escaped injury. Two of Jones’ co-workers were shot through the head: Maj. Matthew Houseal, an Army Reserve psychiatrist, and Navy Cmdr. Keith Springle, a clinical social worker. Pfc. Michael Yates, a counseling patient, made it just outside the waiting room where Spc. Jacob Barton and Bueno-Galdos were killed. Yates had grabbed someone’s weapon to try to fight back.

“Please have ammo,” were his last words.

A four-year wait

An Army psychiatric board ruled in 2009 that Russell’s mental illness was so severe he was not competent to stand trial. After treatment, the board reevaluated the case and cleared the way for legal proceedings to resume.

Prosecutors say they have evidence that Russell smoked a cigarette outside the clinic and removed his name tag and outdoor rifle scope before going in — signs of premeditation, not madness.

“In the end, what he expressed to us had more to do with having been wronged, and feeling belittled and angry about it,” Army psychiatrist Ricky Malone testified at a pretrial hearing last month.

But psychiatric consultants for the defense believe Russell was both mentally troubled and provoked to violence — an argument that could, even if he’s found mentally responsible for the killings, render him guilty of something less than premeditated murder.

“I can say, very clearly, that I have never seen a case such as this one, where the defendant was provoked to violence by the ineptitude and lack of compassion of two of my colleagues,” University of Pennsylvania forensic psychiatrist Robert Sadoff wrote for the defense.

Family members of the dead have expressed frustration that arguments over mental health have left them waiting four years to see Russell go to trial.

“You have a murder that occurred inside of a hospital with 40 or 50 witnesses,” said Thomas Springle, brother of the dead Navy commander. “Somebody who graduated from law school yesterday could prosecute that case.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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