Recruits taken despite history of troubles

Before Army Sgt. 1st Class Randal Ruby was accused of beating prisoners in Iraq, he amassed a 10-year criminal record documenting assaults on his wife and a high-speed police chase in Maine for which he remains wanted.

Before Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes stabbed an Iraqi private to death, he was hospitalized after threatening suicide in high school and accused of assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing.

Before Army Spc. Shane Carl Gonyon was convicted of stealing a pistol at Abu Ghraib prison, he was convicted twice on felony charges and arrested four times. He enlisted weeks after his release from a federal prison.

During a yearlong examination, The Sacramento Bee studied the backgrounds of hundreds of troops identified from recruiting documents and other military records, focusing on those who entered the services since the Iraq war began and those linked to in-service problems.

Though not a representative sample, the 250 military personnel analyzed most closely for “Suspect Soldiers” included 120 with questionable backgrounds, including felonies and serious drug, alcohol or mental health problems.

Ruby, Holmes and Gonyon were among 70 with troubled pasts whom The Bee linked to incidents in Iraq.

“These guys are out there carrying weapons, fighting on the streets with drugs in their pockets,” said Tressie Cox, whose son, Lee Robert, had a history of drug and mental problems before he was charged with selling drugs in Iraq. “Shame on my son, but shame on all you people out there who are policing this and allowing this to continue to happen.”

Those identified by The Bee are among the tens of thousands of military personnel recruited or retained as the armed services – entering the sixth year of the Iraq war – lowered educational, age and moral standards and granted a growing number of waivers to applicants whose backgrounds would otherwise have barred them from serving.

The percentage of Army recruits receiving so-called “moral conduct” waivers more than doubled, from 4.6 percent in 2003 to 11.2 percent in 2007. Others were able to enlist because they had no official criminal record of arrests or convictions, their records were overlooked, or prosecutors suspended charges in lieu of military service – akin to a now-defunct Vietnam-era practice in which judges gave defendants a choice between prison and the military.

“How in the hell can they legally possess a gun?” asked Montgomery County, Ala., Sheriff D.T. Marshall, when questioned about a soldier from his county.

That soldier, Eli Gregory, was convicted in an attempted home invasion and of felony theft in Alabama, making him ineligible to legally possess a firearm there. Yet the military gave him a rifle and sent him to Iraq, where he was convicted by the Army of assault and battery on a fellow soldier and discharged.

Gregory, who returned to Alabama after his court-martial, said he still cannot legally possess a firearm in the United States.

The military defended its recruiting policies, including granting more waivers for past conduct.

“Standards in our society have changed over the years; we are a reflection of those changes,” said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command. “Considering offering a waiver to otherwise qualified recruits is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call to duty.”

Guard changes policy

In December, the National Guard quit granting felony waivers. The Guard's chief recruiting officer, Col. Mike Jones, was quoted in the Army Times calling the previous policy “a risk,” but he later said an increased number of applicants made the policy no longer necessary.

Of the more than 120 soldiers and Marines with questionable pasts examined by The Bee, at least 18 had felony arrests or convictions or histories of mental illness. At least eight of the 18 later were connected to incidents in Iraq, and a ninth fatally shot himself while on guard duty in Kuwait.

The military refused to disclose who required waivers to enter the military, citing privacy, but The Bee found that waivers were not required of all convicted felons.

Gregory said he was allowed to join without a waiver because he was convicted of stealing less than $500, so the Army didn't technically consider the crime a felony. The Army confirmed that it does not require waivers for some felonies in which the crime loss is less than $500, but a spokesman noted that a felony waiver is required for larger amounts.

Shane Carl Gonyon had four felony arrests and two convictions, but he had only to lie to avoid rejection.

Shortly after he was discharged from the Air Force in Wyoming for drunken driving in 1998, Gonyon was arrested in Colorado on suspicion of pointing a semiautomatic pistol at a homeless man who had accused him of theft.

The following year, he admitted to stealing more than $10,000 in equipment from an Air Force base, and months later, he was accused of providing marijuana to a 13-year-old girl in exchange for oral sex, triggering a felony charge that resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanor child endangering.

Nineteen days after he walked away from a federal prison, Gonyon applied for the Michigan National Guard, claiming he had worked at a wood supply company during the period when he actually was incarcerated. He was accepted the following month, in January 2003.

Since Gonyon had previously served in the military, a complete background check was not required by the Guard. That practice also ended earlier this year, after a guardsman with a past felony conviction shot and killed four civilians.

Gonyon wasn't confronted about his criminal record until 2006, after an incident at Abu Ghraib prison, where he processed detainees. In late March or early April 2006, Gonyon stole a 7 mm pistol from a translator. He was caught trying to mail it to the U.S.

“I deliberately concealed my arrest(s) and convictions,” Gonyon told a court-martial panel, which convicted him of theft and other charges.

‘Short on bodies'

Military officials didn't publicly blame the war in Iraq, but some privately acknowledged it is why they accept individuals who previously would have been rejected.

Asked why someone like Delano Holmes was allowed to deploy to Iraq, Marine Capt. Brett Miner, a prosecutor at Holmes' court-martial, said: “We're kind of short on bodies.”

Indianapolis police records show that on Jan. 13, 2002, when Holmes was 16, officers dispatched an ambulance to his high school after Holmes threatened to kill himself.

Fifteen months later, Holmes was arrested for disorderly conduct at a mall and banned from returning there for a year. He returned 10 minutes later and was arrested on a trespassing charge.

Then, on April 14, 2004, a college student told police that Holmes had shoved him onto a bed and hit him in the forehead during a dispute over a vehicle.

Weeks later, Holmes left for boot camp.

In the months leading to his 2006 deployment to Iraq, civilian police found Holmes in a pickup containing marijuana residue and drug paraphernalia. In a separate incident, the military disciplined him for failing a drug test.

Section 6210.5 of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual says Marines confirmed to have used illegal drugs “will be processed” for separation. A Marine Corps spokeswoman said the regulation does not give a time limit for completing that separation process, but she acknowledged that commanders had not even started the process for Holmes.

Three months after he deployed, Holmes was standing guard in Fallujah when he pulled out a 131/4-inch bayonet and repeatedly stabbed Pvt. Munther Jasem Muhammed Hassin, whose Iraq army unit was serving alongside U.S. Marines. An autopsy found Hassin suffered 17 stab wounds, 26 cuts and a severed spine.

Holmes then fired Hassin's AK-47 rifle to make it appear he had killed him in self-defense, the prosecutor said. Defense attorneys said the fight started when Hassin refused to put out a cigarette, which Holmes feared might alert insurgents.

A military panel at Camp Pendleton, Calif., found Holmes guilty of negligent homicide and making a false statement and sentenced him to 10 months in jail or, in effect, time served.

Warnings given

For years, the military was warned about applicants with criminal backgrounds.

A 1996 Pentagon study of more than 100,000 recruits found that those with arrest records left the service at a rate 70 percent higher than those without such histories. A 2003 study warned that destructive behavior by troops with criminal histories or troubling backgrounds “could have the most serious consequences.”

A 2007 Army study said that although recruits requiring conduct waivers re-enlisted at a higher rate, were promoted to sergeant faster and received more awards, they had a higher rate of desertion, misconduct and failure to complete alcohol rehabilitation.

Hassin, the Iraqi soldier killed by Holmes, had a relative assigned to the same post. His death angered the Iraqi soldiers serving with the Marines there.

“They took it pretty personal,” Capt. Javier Torres testified at Holmes' court-martial. “After the incident, the Iraqis did not want to assume (their) post.”

Known troubles

Other soldiers and Marines linked by The Bee to incidents in Iraq had questionable histories – obtained not as civilians, but as members of the armed services. They, too, were nonetheless deployed.

Three years after Randal Ruby joined the Army in 1985, civilian police near his post at Fort Lewis, Wash., arrested him on a charge of assault after Tacoma police officers reported finding him pacing amid belongings scattered across his living room. The officers reported that the left side of his wife's face was swollen.

Six months later, Ruby's wife again called officers, who found her forehead red from an apparent attack. In 1991, she obtained a restraining order after alleging Ruby “struck me several times.”

Ruby was transferred to Fort Carson, Colo., and civilian police were called to the couple's home after his wife accused him of choking her.

He filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997, the same year he led three police officers in Maine on a high-speed chase that ended when he lost control of his pickup and crashed.

Ruby was indicted in that case on charges of eluding an officer, drunken driving, speeding and driving without a license.

A warrant remained outstanding when he deployed to Iraq, where he was accused in 2006 of “drop-kicking” one detainee and allowing a translator to beat another.

Soldiers, including Ruby's driver, testified that the unit kept AK-47 rifles, known as “packages,” in Humvees to plant on civilians killed by mistake. Once, Pfc. Nathan Huhn testified, Ruby ordered a “package” after telling his men to open fire and calling in an airstrike on an area populated by civilians.

Once the firing started, Huhn testified, “We maneuvered up there and still didn't see nobody … a crowd of women, children and men, but nobody with weapons or like that. Sgt. Ruby told Staff Sgt. (Armando) Cardona (Jr.) to go ahead and send the package.”

Cardona testified: “I grabbed an AK, walked up around my truck, looked for a spot” to throw it, then realized he couldn't reach across a canal.

Ruby, who said he ordered his men to stop firing as soon as he realized civilians were in the area, was charged with nine offenses but found guilty of only one: disrespecting a superior.

That superior, Lt. Neale Shank, was found dead in a suspected suicide weeks before Ruby's court-martial.

Ruby was sentenced to a reprimand, in which a general wrote: “Your behavior is a disgrace to the Army.”

Now retired and living in Kentucky, Ruby denied ever planting weapons, and said his soldiers were pressured to testify against him. He also maintained that his civilian charges happened a long time ago and “have nothing to do with Iraq.”

“I never robbed a bank or a 7-Eleven or smoked dope or any of that stuff that they're letting kids in the military for today because there's no draft,” Ruby said. “I served my country honorably.”

COMING MONDAY: Crimes committed by returning Iraq veterans have caught the attention – and sympathies – of lawmakers and veterans groups.