Army captain faces court-martial

He is accused of taking nude photos of female soldiers in a shower

May 06, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amid the chaos, disorder and abuse of detainees that prevailed at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq, the commander of a Northern California military police company was accused of taking nude photographs of his female soldiers while they were in the shower.

Capt. Leo V. Merck, 32, was referred for court-martial for allegedly taking the nude photos and downloading them onto his government-issued laptop computer last fall. He was relieved as commander of the 870th Military Police Company, an Army National Guard unit based in Pittsburg, Calif.

"For him to have done this has been a big shock for everybody in the company," said the company's current commander, 1st Lt. Michael Drayton.

Drayton said that, through his involvement in the investigation, he saw seven photographs downloaded to Merck's laptop. They included nude photos of the six women in the 870th and another woman from a unit with which the company shared its shower.

National Guard spokesmen said they knew none of the details of the case, including its disposition, referring inquiries to the Army. Army officials failed to provide answers to questions over two days of phone calls and e-mails. Attempts to reach Merck were unsuccessful.

Members of the 870th said they were told nothing about their former commander's sudden departure in November and have heard only rumors. "It's all been hush, hush, swept under the rug," said one who asked not to be named.

The 124-member company, which includes six women, served at the prison alongside Maryland's 372nd Military Police Company, the unit at the center of the explosive prison abuse investigation.

Company members were sent to Abu Ghraib last fall, bringing with them an outdoor shower they had put together, a 10-by-20-foot plywood enclosure with about a foot of open space (which they later boarded up) around the bottom.

According to interviews with members of the company, three women were showering one afternoon in November when one of them, Spc. Myrna Hernandez, saw Merck on his hands and knees peering up into the shower and snapping pictures.

"I saw a guy on all fours with a digital camera in his hands," Hernandez told the Contra Costa Times, which first reported the story yesterday. "His head was going under the wall, and we made eye contact. I was in shock, like what do I do now?"

After the women reported the incident, Merck was transferred to an administrative position at a base 120 miles away, and later to Kuwait, where he awaited court-martial, said Drayton.

In an Army report documenting abuses at Abu Ghraib, Merck is cited for "conduct unbecoming an officer and unauthorized use of government computer."

Merck, who is married, is a financial analyst in Fremont, Calif.

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