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The explosion that hit the Kilo Company convoy shook Dela Cruz’s Humvee. A plume of black smoke rose and a snowfall of ashy debris followed. Stunned, Dela Cruz called on his training: First, yank his Humvee to the side of the road in a herringbone maneuver (slant-park the vehicle to the right or left). Then dismount and prepare to engage. He grabbed his weapon, an M16 assault rifle mounted with an M203 grenade launcher. He shoved out the door and glanced around, looking for a possible triggerman. A white car was parked 20 meters away on the opposite side of the road. Next to the vehicle stood a group of five young men. Under the best of circumstances, a car filled with military-aged males stopped near a convoy would be regarded warily. Its proximity to the blast increased suspicion. “My immediate thought is, OK, maybe this was a car bomb,” Wuterich told 60 Minutes in March 2007. “OK, maybe these guys had something to do with this.”
From that point on, the accounts of what happened differ, devolving into a series of contradictory statements, alleged cover stories, and, some say, lies that to this day pit Dela Cruz and his one-time friend, Wuterich, against one another.
By Wuterich’s account, Dela Cruz began shouting at the men in broken Arabic, yelling “Qif! Qif!” or “Stop! Stop!” The men ignored Dela Cruz and ran.
“Normally, the Iraqis know the drill when you’re over there,” Wuterich told 60 Minutes. “If something happens, they know exactly what they need to do. Get down, hands up, and completely cooperate. These individuals were doing none of that. They got out of the car, [and] as they were going around they started to take off, so I shot at them.”
Wuterich stated in a hearing that Dela Cruz also fired. “Engaging was the only choice,” said Wuterich, who had never been in combat before. “The threat had to be neutralized.”
Asked by 60 Minutes how shooting a group of fleeing men could be considered justified, Wuterich said, “Because [it was] hostile action. If they were the triggermen, would have blown up the IED. Which would also constitute hostile intent. But also at the same time there were military-aged males that were inside that car. The only vehicle, the only one that was out, that was Iraqi, was them. . . . Those are the things that went through my mind before I pulled the trigger.”
In Dela Cruz’s version of events, the men at the car posed no threat. They were not running, and they were cooperating. In fact, they were trying to surrender. Some were standing with their hands up, others with hands interlocked behind their heads. Dela Cruz says Wuterich fired anyway.
Dela Cruz says he was puzzled at first, but then assumed his leader knew something, so he approached and performed a “dead check"—marine slang for making sure the enemy is dead—blasting the bodies with a short burst from his rifle. (Dela Cruz acknowledges that the rules of engagement actually required him to check on the condition of the enemy and treat them if necessary, not shoot them.) He says Wuterich then approached them and pumped shots into the men at point blank range. A forensic report would later show the presence of “stippling” on the men’s corpses, indicating that some of the shots had been fired from a range of two feet or less. Puckett says that the marks resulted from the shots Dela Cruz fired into the bodies. Puckett denies that Wuterich shot the Iraqi men after they were dead.
Dela Cruz insists that the killings troubled him, but that there was little time to dwell on them. A Humvee had been hit. Marines needed attention. Approaching the blast site, he saw the company medic tending to a marine—Lance Cpl. James Crossan—whose legs were pinned under the vehicle’s damaged bulk. Another marine, Lance Cpl. Salvador Guzman, limped around in a daze. “Get down!” Dela Cruz yelled. “Find cover!”
The Humvee had been torn in half. It slanted nose down in a large black crater, a plume of smoke hovering over it. Dela Cruz saw debris and blood, and then, he recalls, “I saw TJ"—Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. “He was missing limbs, missing everything, his jaw. His expression, his face, his eyes were wide open. It was like he didn’t know what happened, like he didn’t know what hit him.”
Dela Cruz says the sight devastated him. “My heart melted. I was like, Oh, the world is over.” Terrazas, from El Paso, Texas, had been a friend, and one of the best-liked marines in Kilo Company. Around Sparta, he was known as the company cutup, regaling the other marines with tales of his trips to Tijuana, Mexico, jaunts that earned him his nickname of “TJ.”
Now he was dead. Again, there was no time to dwell. Leaving the medic to tend the wounded, Dela Cruz grabbed a marine, Lance Cpl. Trent Graviss, and an Iraqi soldier, and led them north to begin searching houses. Wuterich, meanwhile, led a small squad toward a group of houses to the south.
With Graviss and the Iraqi soldier in tow, Dela Cruz kicked in the door of the first house. The three rushed in, weapons up as they went room to room. Nothing. They burst through the door of a second house, and a third. Nothing.
In the fourth house they found one elderly man and three younger men. They cuffed them, leaving the Iraqi soldier to guard them while they completed their sweep. As they worked, reinforcements arrived to evacuate the dead and wounded. Morning became afternoon.
At some point, Kilo Company’s platoon commander, Lt. William T. Kallop, approached Dela Cruz’s team and began talking in a rambling manner, Dela Cruz testified. “He was spazzing out over all the civilians that had been killed” in the homes cleared by Wuterich and his team, Dela Cruz recalls. “I was like, What the hell? What happened down there?”
Late that afternoon, a Humvee driven by Wuterich approached. The squad leader collected Dela Cruz and Graviss and took them to the houses Wuterich and his team had cleared. Wuterich ordered the men to remove bodies from the houses.
Before they got started, however, Dela Cruz says his squad leader pulled him aside. “He told me that if anybody asks about those guys—the five Iraqi males at the white car—that they were running away and the Iraqi army shot them,” says Dela Cruz. At first, Dela Cruz recalls, he was confused. “Why would we have to lie if we didn’t do anything wrong?” he says. Wuterich’s attorney denies that the conversation ever occurred.
Still, as dusk settled over Haditha, Dela Cruz gave expression to the anger he had held inside him all day by doing something he later would deeply regret. He walked over to the bodies by the car and urinated on the head of one.
Dela Cruz turned to the homes and prepared to remove the bodies. In the waning light, he pushed open a door and peered in. “The first body I saw was an old lady,” Dela Cruz recalls. “Her mouth was wide open and her hands were up.”
In statements to investigators in March 2006, he described the rest of what he observed. “I . . . walked into the living room and remember seeing an old man laying dead on the floor in front of the door. I saw a woman lying dead at the end of the couch in that room, and I saw several children lying next to her at the end of the couch. I remember this house being badly burnt inside. I remember smelling burnt flesh and death. I didn’t ask anyone what happened in this house, and I didn’t really want to know.”
Upon walking into the second house, Dela Cruz continued, “I remember seeing some dead children at the foot of the bed, and a female teenager laying dead at the bottom of the bed. I remember I was in shock from seeing all the dead people in this house. . . . I was going to try to pull out the body bags, but I just didn’t bother. I just wanted to get the hell out.”
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9 months ago