Killers on and off the battlefield?
Pierre Cole seemed high on killing. Cole, a soldier in Iraq, called his dad from overseas to boast about gunning down enemies in a firefight in 2003.
“He was on cloud nine,” said his father, Willie Cole. “‘Hey, I got a couple of them,’ ” he said. ” ‘I let loose.'”
Willie Cole — a former military police officer who served in Panama when the United States deposed President Manuel Noriega in 1989 — was shocked.
“It disturbed me, his reaction to the loss of life,” said Willie Cole, a caterer in the south suburbs. “I said, ‘Regardless of what you’re over there for, the other guy is fighting for something, too. You have to respect that.'”
But Pierre Cole tuned out his dad.
“He commented to me, ‘F— it. I’m glad it’s him, not me.'”
Now Pierre Cole, 22, is back from Iraq and facing a murder charge in Cook County Criminal Court for allegedly killing a West Side store owner, In Taik Jung, during a botched robbery Oct. 14.
Pierre Cole was on leave from Iraq. His father and others wonder if Cole’s military experience played a role in the slaying.
Seven other soldiers from the same base — Fort Riley, Kan. — also have been charged with murder, for other killings, since August.
Five of those soldiers have been accused of killing civilians in Iraq, although the murder charge against one of them was dropped. Two more soldiers are charged with killing members of their unit near their base in Kansas. It’s a rare cluster of murder cases for any one Army base.
Statistics obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that 18 murder cases were tried under military law for the entire Army in 2003, 30 in 2002 and 18 in 2001. Of the current Fort Riley cases, every one but Cole’s is being handled in military courts.
It’s impossible to know if these defendants would have been charged in violent crimes had they never joined the military.
But Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of war at West Point, suggested a study by the Army’s inspector general on potential links among the murder cases.
“It is troubling to have these egregious murders in Iraq and now to have them in the States, too,” Solis said. “Maybe they would look at leadership, garrison routine, enlistment records and pre-enlistment records to see whether they had juvenile records before they entered the Army.”
Immigrants became merchants
In Taik Jung, 50, came to the United States in 1980 from a small town in Korea.
He and Kimberly Jung married the next year. Like many immigrants to Chicago, the Jungs became merchants, working to make a better life for their son and daughter, who are now in their 20s and attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Jungs ran a jewelry store before opening Best Fit clothing in the 4000 block of West Madison about eight years ago.
“We were open 10 to 6:30, seven days a week,” said Kimberly Jung. “My husband never had time for himself.”
They knew the West Garfield Park neighborhood could be dangerous, but they relied on their Christian faith to keep them safe.
The couple trusted their employee, Latorria Fields, 38, because of her religious upbringing and family background.
“She taught a youth group at her church,” Kimberly Jung recalled.
But Fields allegedly wound up playing a part in In Taik Jung’s death.
Pierre Cole and his uncle, Lee McGee, a veteran of the first Gulf War, decided to rob the store and Fields agreed to help, prosecutors said.
Fields told them how much money came into the store and promised to remove a video surveillance tape in exchange for part of the loot, police said.
On the day of the murder, McGee and Cole shopped and made small talk with Jung for about an hour before McGee pulled out a handgun and shot the storekeeper, prosecutors said.
Then Cole also allegedly pulled out a pistol and shot Jung.
They rifled through his pockets looking for a wallet but did not find one, authorities said. They couldn’t open the cash register and left virtually empty-handed before fleeing to Kansas, where they were arrested Dec. 2, police said.
Fields, meanwhile, had failed to remove the surveillance tape, which police seized. The tape showed Jung ringing up clothing purchases for the men, police said.
“We had a terrible business for two years,” Kimberly Jung said. “The economy is very bad. Now I have closed the store, but I still have my responsibility to raise my kids. I don’t know why this happened. I have to put my house on the market next month. I have no insurance. I am having a very hard time financially.”
Shared war stories with uncle
Cole grew up in a stable home with a grandfather at 47th and Laramie near Midway Airport. His other grandfather, Willie Cole’s father, is a bishop at True Vine Pentecostal Church in Aliceville, Ala.
“We’ve always been out for an honest day’s work,” said his father, the executive chef at C&C Catering in Harvey.
Pierre Cole attended Flower High School in Chicago, then moved in with his father in Dolton and transferred to Thornton High. He dropped out to work for the Job Corps in culinary arts.
“Pierre wasn’t excelling in school,” his father said. “He was drinking with friends and not fitting in. The Job Corps was good for him.”
When he was 18, Cole chose to enter the military like his father and uncle. He was assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company , 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment of the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division based at Fort Riley.
The 34th Armor has suffered major losses in Iraq, and Cole saw some of his comrades killed in action, his father said.
“He saw his lieutenant get killed,” he said. “One time they mortared guys playing softball near his unit. One soldier’s head was blown off, and his body was sent back without a head.”
When his son came home on leave in September, he hooked up with McGee, his 37-year-old uncle who served in a tank unit in the 1991 Gulf War, Willie Cole said.
“They had a lot of stories to share,” he said.
Willie Cole said he traveled to Fort Riley to see Pierre after he returned home from Iraq and was shocked at the lack of discipline at the base.
“Here was my son, drinking for a couple days straight, starting in the morning at Fort Riley. Groups of people came back and all they wanted to do was party. There should have been alcohol awareness counseling, and they should have been dealing with coming back from combat. There was none of that.”
Later, Willie Cole was in Louisiana when he learned that police were looking for his son and Lee McGee.
“It’s not serious,” Willie Cole remembers his son telling him in October.
Willie Cole said he was dumbfounded when he learned what his son was accused of doing in Chicago.
“Out of character doesn’t describe it,” he said. “He was going to sign up for four more years, with a bonus. All that is gone.”
Pierre Cole’s mother, Eunice McGee, also can’t believe her son is in jail facing the possibility of Death Row.
“I believe he snapped,” she said. “It hurts me that my brother [McGee] got him into this situation. When [President] Bush sends soldiers home from Iraq, he ought to get them counseling. To me, this was not my son at all.”
Through his attorney, Pierre Cole refused to answer questions, except to say he is aware of the charges against the other Fort Riley soldiers but does not know the men.
The ‘Straight and Stalwart’
Six other Fort Riley soldiers charged with murder are members of the 41st Infantry Regiment, whose slogan is “Straight and Stalwart.”
In Iraq, Staff Sgts. Johnny Horne Jr. and Cardenas J. Alban were accused of a “mercy killing,” shooting a 16-year-old who was severely burned and wounded in the abdomen after the soldiers attacked a dump truck outside Baghdad on Aug. 18, 2004. The soldiers fired on the truck after hearing a report that it was depositing bombs on the road.
Horne and Alban have pleaded guilty. Horne was sentenced to three years in prison, and Alban got a one-year term.
Is there a larger story?
In the same incident, Sgt. Michael P. Williams was charged with murder for allegedly ordering his soldiers to “light him up” when another unarmed Iraqi ran from the dump truck. Charges against a platoon leader were dropped.
Ten days later, Williams allegedly killed an Iraqi after removing his handcuffs. Another soldier had put an AK-47 on a table after finding the assault weapon in a search of a home. Williams claimed he shot the Iraqi because he saw the man go for the weapon and “felt threatened,” prosecutors said.
Spec. Brent W. May allegedly led another unarmed Iraqi into the same house and asked Williams, “Can I shoot him?” May shot the man in the head and bragged about the killing afterward, prosecutors said.
The murder charges are pending against Williams and May.
Two other soldiers in the 41st, Sgts. Aaron R. Stanley and Eric Colvin, were in Kansas when they became murderers, authorities said.
“I thought from the first day I took this case that there was a larger story,” said Capt. Trevor Oliver, an Army attorney who represents Stanley. “Is there a psychological problem that runs through all of these soldiers? Drug problems?”
Stanley and Colvin had stayed behind when their unit returned to Iraq in July.
The war veterans were living in a farmhouse that Stanley rented in rural Clay County about 30 miles from the base. Stanley already was in trouble. He was facing charges in civilian court for allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine, an illegal drug.
On Sept. 13, he and Colvin allegedly killed two fellow soldiers, Staff Sgt. Matthew Werner and Spec. Christopher D. Hymer, at the farmhouse. Hymer was shot seven times and Werner six times, a coroner testified earlier this month at a military hearing. Both of the slain men had traces of Valium and methamphetamine in their blood, the coroner said.
Stanley called 911 and said he shot two people trying to break into his house, but he and Colvin were charged with murder in military court.
Stanley also was charged with being absent without leave and violating an order restricting him to the limits of Fort Riley at the time of the shooting.
Oliver disputed whether his client was really AWOL. Originally, Stanley was supposed to be restricted to the base while the civilian drug case was pending against him, Oliver said.
“Then the unit said he could go off base with an NCO [a non- commissioned officer] escort,” Oliver said. “Stanley was a sergeant, E-5, and his friends were E-5s. So he essentially could go off base with his friends.”
Oliver said he plans to pursue a self-defense strategy.
A medical exam found Stanley is mentally fit to stand trial and does not suffer from full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder from his combat experience, Oliver said. Still, his client was diagnosed with “PTSD-like stress” that may become part of his defense, he said.
Oliver would not discuss specifics of the case but said the military should look for any common threads running through the series of killings.
“To have six or more under court martial for one unit is strange,” he said of the 41st Infantry. “To have them all charged with murder is extremely strange.”
Hymer’s mother, Cathy Hymer, said her son was a football and basketball player in his hometown of Liberal, Mo., in the southwest corner of the state. He drove a Bradley armored vehicle and escorted a four-star general in Kuwait, she said.
He seemed to enjoy the soldier’s life, his mother said.
On April 27, 2003, Hymer was in the Middle East and wrote to his mother, “We left the airport a few days ago and moved into Saddam’s palace resort. There are many man-made lakes and canals. We have been fishing, swimming and boating. . . . Living the good life. I don’t know too many people who can say that in a war zone.”
Cathy Hymer did not know the men accused of killing her son. She is angry the Army did not keep better track of Stanley, keeping him on base after he was charged in the civilian drug case.
“This was cold-blooded murder,” she said. “I want answers for why this happened. The Army is not communicating with us at all.”
Fort Riley would not comment on the string of murders except for a statement that Maj. Gen. Dennis Hardy, the base commander, had released Oct. 1 before Cole was charged in Chicago.
“I remain confident that all our soldiers are exceptionally well-trained,” Hardy said. “They know the difference between right and wrong, between acceptable and unacceptable actions. We should not allow these incidents to overshadow the tremendous efforts of our soldiers in Iraq.”
Solis, the West Point instructor and a former military prosecutor, said the Fort Riley cases — especially the overseas ones — could signal the need for better leadership in the field.
Army leaders in Iraq, for example, could be dehumanizing the enemy, which can lead to soldiers feeling they are above the law and to commit “bad acts.”
“In Japan, we called the enemy ‘Nips,'” Solis said. “In Vietnam they were ‘Charlie’ or ‘Gooner’ or ‘Slope,’ and in Iraq they’re ‘rag heads.’ But that is not universally true. Commanders can instruct their troops not to use those names. I know some commanders in Iraq are insisting the enemy be called ‘ACMs’ or anti-coalition militia.”
As a former prosecutor, however, Solis said he is always wary of the argument that combat stress leads to criminal acts.
“The military is a reflection of civilian society,” he said. “We have good guys and bad guys. It’s possible these [Fort Riley] soldiers would have been bad guys in spite of the war.”
Pierre Cole’s father was not so sure about that.
“The moral of the story is that if we take American soldiers and turn them into fighting machines,” he said, “we need to take them back and desensitize them, and turn them back into the people they were before they left home. We have guerrilla fighters walking around our streets now.”