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On August 31, 2007, nearly two years after the Haditha killings, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz took the stand in the Article 32 hearing of his friend and former squad leader, Frank Wuterich. (The hearing is the military equivalent of a grand jury probe, except that defense attorneys are allowed to cross-examine witnesses.) In halting English, Dela Cruz testified that he watched Wuterich gun down men who were, to his eye, in attitudes of surrender. He described the carnage he saw in the houses searched by Wuterich and his team. And he described the regret he felt at having urinated on the corpse of another human being.
The marine officer who presided over the hearing, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, scorned Dela Cruz’s testimony. “On the witness stand he is unclear, easily confused, and acquiesces to counsel’s questioning,” Ware wrote. “Simply stated, Sgt[.] Dela Cruz’s demeanor and performance in the courtroom is poor.” Ware also cited the fact that Dela Cruz had defiled one of the bodies and that Dela Cruz initially had made false statements to the navy’s criminal investigators.
Based on those findings and other conflicting testimony, Ware recommended dismissal of murder charges against Wuterich and instead urged charges of negligent homicide in the deaths of five children and two women. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general overseeing the case, accepted the recommendations and will try Wuterich on the reduced charges.
Dela Cruz’s lawyers, who have otherwise declined to comment, acknowledge that their client appears uncomfortable on the stand, but they explain that it’s because he does not enjoy testifying and sometimes still struggles with the language. They also explain that there was no “deal” for Dela Cruz’s testimony against anyone and point out that his statements and testimony have been consistent since he decided to tell the truth while still in Iraq, before any charges were brought against him and long before he talked to any lawyer or even knew immunity could be a possibility. Moreover, they say, Dela Cruz’s credibility is bolstered by his willingness to admit to actions that cast him in a negative light, including having previously lied to protect himself and other marines and having engaged in certain “unprofessional actions” on that day.
Dela Cruz himself shrugs when I ask him about the assertion by Ware that he is not credible. “I’m not the judge,” he says. “I’m just following orders now, [doing] what the government wants me to do. And I just leave it to the judge. They either believe me or not. But I saw the truth. I saw it.”
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Wuterich’s court-martial had been scheduled for March but was delayed pending the outcome of a motion on whether the court could hear outtakes of Wuterich’s interview with 60 Minutes. As this story went to press a date had not been set.
Of the four men originally charged with murder, only Dela Cruz and Wuterich remain marines. Wuterich has been reassigned to a desk job. “He’s showing up to work,” Puckett says. But “his life is on hold.” In many ways, so, too, is that of Dela Cruz. As this story went to press, Dela Cruz was awaiting what he hoped would be the last time he must testify—at Wuterich’s court-martial. Meanwhile, he was serving out his final few months at Camp Pendleton, escorting marine detainees to and from hearings and pushing paper.
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On a warm San Diego afternoon, Dela Cruz rubs his thumb and forefinger together when asked to reflect on all that has happened. Since agreeing to testify against Wuterich, he says, he has received a chilly reception from some, but not all, of his fellow marines. But he knows his reputation will forever be stained. And he knows that for as long as he remains with the marines whispers will follow. “They don’t say it, but you can kind of sense it that they think you’re a traitor,” he says. “But they don’t actually know the truth.” He has not talked to any of the men charged in the case, and likely never will. “Things will never be the same,” he says.
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As our conversation winds up, I ask Dela Cruz about the bodies by the car. Why did he desecrate one of them?
Up to this point, Dela Cruz had answered all of my other questions matter-of-factly and without hesitation. But at this one, he winces a little, casts his head down as he recalls the moment that haunts him most. “It was that afternoon,” he says. “It was getting dark. . . .” His voice trails off. “At that time, I wasn’t really thinking right, sir. Somebody told us to go up there, up the road, to check for more IEDs; I know I should not have done something like that, but I did it. That’s not an excuse. It wasn’t appropriate to do, but I did it. That’s what happened. You’re mad; you’re angry over what had happened.”
Did anyone see him? “I don’t think so,” he says. So why tell? He pauses for a moment. “So I didn’t have anything to hide; so it doesn’t come back to me what had happened.”
Whether anyone else knew, he says, didn’t really matter. “I knew.”
Photograph: Lucian Read, embedded with Kilo Company