Family faults probe into Marine's death

Reported accidental shooting took on darker tone as facts emerged

November 05, 2006|By Shaila Dewan | Shaila Dewan,New York Times News Service

DAGSBORO, Del. -- When Tricia and Gregg White were told by the Marines in 2004 that their son, Lance Cpl. Russell White, had been killed in Afghanistan in a gun-cleaning accident, their hearts went out to the Marine who had been holding the gun.

White's brother Adam memorized a prayer of forgiveness, the Whites said, and headed to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to visit the Marine, Lance Cpl. Federico Pimienta. The Whites had been told he was on a suicide watch.

But their outpouring of forgiveness came months before they learned that, whatever had happened, their son's death did not result from a gun-cleaning accident. It was before they learned that Pimienta had lied to investigators and that he had been repeatedly chastised for mishandling weapons. It was before he failed to appear at his court-martial, having fled to Europe.

And it was before questioning, guided by intimations of a darker explanation from their son's platoon mates, enabled the Whites to piece together what had happened in the bunkhouse at Bagram Air Base on June 20, 2004, when White, 19, was killed by a shot to the head.

What they learned did not, to their minds, add up to a simple accident. But it did leave them feeling alone, forsaken by military authorities, and incredulous at what they say was the incompetence of the initial investigation into White's death.

"I had lost faith in the entire system," Adam White said at Pimienta's June court-martial on unauthorized-absence charges.

The Marines say there was no attempt to mislead the Whites and that the investigation and prosecution were appropriate.

Lt. Col. Curtis L. Hill, the chief spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, said in an e-mail that there was no intent to provide inaccurate information to the Whites or to the medical examiner, who was also told the death resulted from a gun-cleaning accident.

"When a unit loses a Marine, there is a flurry of activity as they make every attempt to gather as much information as possible in order to release a message back to casualty branch at Headquarters Marine Corps," Hill wrote, adding that initial assumptions sometimes proved false.

About a month after their son's death, the White's learned, through a friend of their son's, that Pimienta, who they thought had been confined at Camp Lejeune, had been seen off the base.

Pimienta was released because he had attended his pretrial hearings and committed no additional misconduct and was not judged a flight risk by his commanding officer, Hill said.

Then the Whites received a copy of the initial investigation report, prepared by the Army Criminal Investigation Division, which conducts investigations for other service branches. Contradictions in witness statements were not explored, they said, and no one said Pimienta had been cleaning his gun, a 9 mm pistol, at the time of the accident. In fact, Pimienta's own statement in the report said that White had been playing with the pistol and had left it on Pimienta's bed. When Pimienta went to holster the gun, he told the investigator, it went off.

In phone calls and e-mail messages, White's Marine buddies told his parents that they were not hearing the full story, Gregg White said. Some who had left the service and could speak freely told the family that Pimienta was known for mishandling his gun, regularly disregarding basic principles of safety.

Military prosecutors decided to treat the shooting as accidental, charging Pimienta under a catch-all provision for "conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces." The maximum sentence he could have received was three years.

But after the unit returned from Afghanistan in November 2004, prosecutors interviewed some witnesses again, including the only other person in the bunkhouse at the time of the shooting, Lance Cpl. Steven Groover. Groover said that immediately after the shooting, Pimienta asked him to lie about what had happened.

The charges against Pimienta were increased to include making a false statement to investigators, which carries a maximum sentence of five years, and manslaughter with culpable negligence, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Two days before his trial began, Pimienta fled the country.

Pimienta was convicted in absentia of making the false statement and of manslaughter. The court-martial recommended a sentence of 12 years and a dishonorable discharge, and the defendant was demoted to the rank of private. But Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, then the commander of the 2nd Marine Division, reduced the sentence to six years and the dishonorable discharge to a bad-conduct discharge.

Pimienta surrendered Feb. 15 in Spain. He was returned to the United States, where he began serving his six-year sentence.

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