LOS ANGELES – A US soldier pleaded guilty Monday to killing five of his colleagues in Iraq four years ago, in a plea deal to escape a death sentence, a military spokesman said.
Army Sergeant John Russell was accused of the May 2009 murders at a clinic for soldiers suffering from war-related stress at Camp Liberty, the largest US base in Iraq.
Russell, who has previously denied responsability, “said ‘I killed these people,’ he acknowledged that,” said Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), south of Seattle.
After pleading guilty, Russell gave an account of the killings for the first time Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported. The victims were three soldiers receiving care at the clinic and two medical officers.
“I just did it out of rage, sir,” he told the military judge, Colonel David Conn, describing how he walked from room to room firing at mental health workers and patients.
“I was upset. I do not remember being angry, but I know that everyone who witnessed me outside the combat stress clinic said I looked angry,” the LA Times quoted him as saying.
“What I remember most was I just wanted to kill myself. One hundred percent, I had decided to kill myself.”
The JBLM spokesman added that Russell has not admitted premeditated murder, which prosecutors have been trying to prove.
“He’s just saying he murdered them. He didn’t say it was premeditated, based upon his mental condition,” Dangerfield told AFP.
“What we’ve agreed upon is the death penalty will be taken off the table, so that … the maximum he will face is life in prison without parole,” he said, adding the sentence will be decided at a court martial.
Relatives of two of the victims listened in the courtroom at the JBLM in the northwestern US state of Washington.
The mother of one of them, Michael Yates Jr., broke down as he described chasing her son and fatally shooting him, after a gun which Yates had grabbed turned out to be unloaded, the LA Times reported.
At the time, the Camp Liberty killings represented the single deadliest toll on US forces in a month in Iraq, and came at a sensitive moment in the US military’s occupation of the country it invaded in 2003.
Russell was on his third tour of duty in Iraq, and his unit was preparing to leave Iraq.
Due to concerns over his mental state, his commanding officer had ordered about a week before the shooting that the soldier’s weapon be confiscated and that he get counseling.