Excerpt: 'Irregular Army' by Matt Kennard
New recruits enlist. Photograph by US Army
From Straight Outta Baghdad:
When these cats, these gang members, come back, we’re going to have some hell on these streets.
– Miguel Robinson, Airman First Class and Los Angeles Crip, 2007
On the eve of America’s most patriotic day in 2005 a group of US soldiers from the army base in Kaiserslautern, southwest Germany, took a drive down to the park pavilion in a nearby forest. The twelve soldiers in the group were in high spirits: aside from the July Fourth festivities coming the next day, some of them were due to finish their first eighteen-month tour of duty, including a spell in Iraq, within a matter of weeks and would be returning home to their long- suffering families. Among them was twenty-five-year-old Sergeant. Juwan Johnson, or J. Rock to his friends, a member of the Sixty-Sixth Transportation Company who was looking forward to returning home to his pregnant wife within the fortnight. It was to be a welcome relief; the past year had been a difficult one. During his tour of Iraq, he had seen the sharp end of the conflict, reportedly surviving an IED (improvised explosive device) attack which blew up his vehicle, and finding the toil of war difficult to cope with. But nothing would prepare him for the treatment he was about to receive from his comrades shortly after 9 p.m. that night. In the park pavilion, J. Rock was set to become a full-fledged member of the Chicago-based gang the Gangster Disciples, listed by the FBI as one of the fifteen biggest gangs in the US. The purpose of the trip that night was to conduct his initiation ceremony, a rite of passage he had to endure to realize his dream of becoming part of one of America’s fiercest street gangs. In gang lingo the ceremony is called “jumping in,” also known as a timed beating. Soon after they arrived, the pack of men Johnson had gone down with began to circle their new recruit. The leader of the gang at the base, Rico Williams, a former airman, struck the first blow, lamping Johnson straight across the face—a blow that knocked him unconscious. The ferocious beating that ensued soon “escalated from reckless to a free-for-all.” Johnson’s lifeless body was treated to a six-minute orgy of violence in which he received 200 blows all over his body and head from the fists and feet of his fellow soldiers.Still in an unconscious state, Johnson was placed back in his bed by his attackers. He would never wake up. The next morning one of Johnson’s roommates found him in his barracks room but could not rouse him. After trying desperately to resuscitate him, a German physician was called who pronounced him dead on arrival. The resulting autopsy report, signed by an Army Forces regional medical examiner, concluded: “The cause of death of this twenty-five-year-old male is multiple blunt force injuries reportedly sustained in a physical assault resulting in fatal injury to the heart and brain.” It added, “The manner of death, in my opinion, is homicide.”
Despite the unambiguous verdict, more than three years later only three of the eleven suspects had been convicted and given confinement terms. One reason for this abysmal bit of police work may have been the intense fear running through the veins of the suspects which had stopped them speaking out. At a Gangster Disciples barbeque in the aftermath of the murder, the gang’s ringleader Williams had warned the rest of them that he would kill anyone who snitched to the authorities, along with their families. The more likely reason for the failure to bring Johnson’s killers to justice, however, was reluctance on the part of the military to prosecute the case as it tried to keep a lid on public recognition of the developing crisis arising from the gangs’ infiltration of the military.
In the end, it took until February 2009 for the police to arrest the main suspect Williams in his hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia, and charge him with second-degree murder as well as three counts of tampering with a witness, including intimidation and threats. The military decided to try him through a court-martial—a legal process much more secretive and less independent than civilian trials. He was found guilty of second-degree murder in November 2010, nearly six years after Johnson was slain, and was acquitted of tampering with a witness. If the military’s goal was to keep the embarrassing press to a minimum, it was a success. In another trial by court-martial, suspect Private Bobby Morrissette was acquitted in Germany on charges of voluntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, which carried a possible fifty-five years confinement.46 It was a stunning verdict—Morrissette had been found to have taken part in the “jumping in” that had led to Johnson’s death. He was instead found guilty of impeding the investigation and the trial, and willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer. In a separate incident, giving a further indication of his questionable moral fiber, he was convicted of committing an indecent act on a female in the presence of another person and wrongful use of a controlled substance. In the end, he got away with forty-two months confinement and a bad misconduct charge.
Understandably the acquittal and weak sentencing angered Johnson’s grieving mother, Stephanie D. Cockrell. “I’m angry, and I’m outraged that we have gangs in the military,” she said. “The court system is sending a message that it’s OK.” Her complaint would be vindicated not long after when another soldier involved in the beating, senior airman Jerome A. Jones, was also acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in another court-martial, despite being present at the beating. After denying all charges, Jones was given the lesser conviction of aggravated assault, as well as being found guilty of marijuana use and assisting in hiding gang members and conspiracy to cover up the murder—including tampering with their gang tattoos. He was given a dishonorable discharge and sentenced to two years in prison by the five-member panel which comprised two air force officers and three air force non-commissioned officers from the Little Rock base—where Jones was stationed. In the subsequent months, the military cover-up became even more scandalous as it emerged that the authorities had actively suppressed intelligence from a whistle- blower on the growing threat of gangs in the Sixty-Sixth Transportation company. In the period before the murder, another soldier in the company, Private Nick Pasquale, had taken copious pictures of gang graffiti in Iraq and on the base and handed them to his superiors in an attempt to press them into action. It had resulted in an investigation into the unit over the course of its thirteen-month deployment to Iraq, which turned up ironclad evidence of gang activity. According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, “the probe involved soldiers believed to be members of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples. Numerous photos of Disciples had been found, along with graffiti and a list of potential gang members, in the soldiers’ living quarters.” But the investigation reported to have found no evidence “validating or disproving” the rampant gang activity in the unit.
Just two months later Johnson was dead. “The only thing that came from the investigation downrange was that I was a disgruntled soldier, causing problems,” Pasquale said. He had even written down the names of those he suspected of gang activity and given them to his superiors, who refused to take action. “Then we come back from Iraq and wham, bam a soldier’s dead. I want [Johnson’s] family to know that your son, your husband, the father of your child did not have to die. I want his family to know that he didn’t have to die if someone had done their job and not swept this under the rug,” said Pasquale. In the aftermath of his testimony, Pasquale was the target of relentless abuse and intimidation, including threats to his life and gang graffiti daubed on his barracks. He even had alarms fitted and slept with knives. “If I do get killed, I don’t want to be another Sgt. Johnson with people wondering, ‘What happened to him? Why?’” he said. “I don’t want my mother going through what Sgt. Johnson’s mother’s going through, trying to get answers from the army.”
Excerpt republished with permission of the publisher.