CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A Navy corpsman pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiracy and kidnapping in connection with the April death of an Iraqi man in which seven Marines are charged with murder.
In a barely audible voice, Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson Bacos admitted that he conspired to take 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his home in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad, plant evidence near his body and lie to his superiors about the shooting incident.
Col. Steve Folsom, the military judge, told Bacos that the charges could lead to a penalty of life imprisonment. Published reports suggest that Bacos will receive only a year in the brig.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, a murder charge was dismissed that could have brought the death penalty. Bacos' detailed admissions will be used to prosecute the other Marines involved, officials said.
Bacos testified that several Marines had hoped to capture and kill a "high value" Iraqi long suspected of planting bombs.
Bacos said that the conspiracy was led by the fire-team leader, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III. "He was mad we kept letting him [the Iraqi] go when he was a known terrorist," Bacos said.
When the original target could not be located, Hutchins decided to take and kill Awad, a suspected insurgent who lived nearby, Bacos said.
Bacos, 21, said that after watching the Marines shoot Awad, who was bound feet and hands, "I felt shocked and sick to my stomach." Initially, the Marines told their superiors that Awad had been killed after he was discovered planting a bomb to explode beneath a U.S. or Iraqi civilian vehicle.
The Marine Corps started an investigation after Awad's family protested that he had been dragged from his home and was not connected to the insurgency.
In the original charges, Bacos was accused of murder, although he was not alleged to have fired his M-16. The murder charge was based on the theory that any co-conspirator is equally guilty when a murder is committed.
The Marines and Bacos were charged with leaving an AK-47 and shovel near the body to suggest that Awad was an insurgent caught burying a roadside bomb. The eight were on duty to kill or capture insurgents when the incident occurred.
Bacos, who is married to a Navy corpsman, has been held at the brig at Camp Pendleton, as have the other seven defendants since being returned in May from Iraq.
But once the plea bargain was signed between prosecutors and defense attorneys, Bacos was moved to the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego for his safety.
Marine Pfc. John Jodka has also been moved from the brig at Camp Pendleton, suggesting that a plea deal is under way. A gag order has prevented lawyers from discussing his case.
All the defendants were part of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.