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War-zone crime ring led to prison time, murder and suicide

Feb. 1, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Tisdale (Army)
Apache tail rotor (Army)

One minute, Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale, the respected commander of the 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, was attending a July 4 safety briefing at Fort Bragg, N.C. The next minute, he was shot dead by a disgruntled soldier who wounded another and quicklyturned the gun on himself in front of 200 people.

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One minute, Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale, the respected commander of the 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, was attending a July 4 safety briefing at Fort Bragg, N.C. The next minute, he was shot dead by a disgruntled soldier who wounded another and quicklyturned the gun on himself in front of 200 people.

It was a public, tragic death for a career officer who had survived deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and was nearing retirement. Tisdale, 42, was a husband and father of two. His killer, Spc. Ricky Elder, 27, was despondent due to his prosecution over a stolen toolbox.

Largely unknown is that this June 28, 2012, murder-suicide punctuated a long and tangled web of thefts and a related string of prosecutions.

Late last year, a senior official and a senior noncommissioned officer from the brigade’s headquarters company pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with the brazen thefts of $1.3 million in consumer electronics and military hardware.

Their loot included five engines for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, several cryptographic radios and a portable laser-targeting system for munitions valued at $300,000.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kurt Allen Bennett, 42, a former helicopter pilot and the ringleader of these thefts, was sentenced Nov. 15 to three years in prison for theft and conspiracy. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Alan “Beau” Walker, 38, cooperated with prosecutors and was sentenced to 18 months on Sept. 25 for theft and conspiracy. Both have since begun to serve their time.

Bennett planned to use the stolen items in a repair shop or teaching business he planned to open in the U.S., lead prosecuting attorney Manu Rangarajan told the judge at Walker’s sentencing.

Seven other soldiers were prosecuted for a small-time scheme to steal 21 combat scopes from the unit armory and sell them for profit — before it unraveled and brought them, Bennett and Walker down.

Federal indictments, court transcripts, impact statements from leaders in the battalion’s parent brigade and other court papers paint a picture of Bennett and Walker’s crimes and bemoan the consequences of their betrayal and the resulting prosecutions.

“The effects of CW3 Bennett’s behavior on the command were catastrophic,” Maj. Dallen Arny, formerly of the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, said in an impact statement filed with the federal case against Bennett. “One of his co-conspirators murdered LTC Tisdale, [who] would be alive today if Ricky Elder didn’t receive a toolbox from CW3 Bennett.”

Linda Tisdale lamented that her son was killed days before his first visit to her in three years.

“He had no enemies. He was a very loving husband, father and son,” she said. “He was so close to retirement, he didn’t deserve this to happen, particularly in the United States.”

Walker’s attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, had no comment for this article. Bennett’s attorney, Paul Sun Jr., declined to comment, as well.

From the war zone

During its 2011 deployment, the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, or “Lightning Brigade,” controlled a Connecticut-sized swath of Afghanistan, including 200 kilometers along the Pakistan frontier. It interdicted 320,000 pounds of bomb-making material, secured ground lines of communication for friendly supplies and supported $60 million in development projects to help the Afghan people.

While the brigade was fighting a war, Bennett and Walker were also breaking the law.

During the deployment, Bennett was first the brigade’s tactical operations officer, then the lead escort for U.S. civilians and officials for the brigade — as well as a member of the commander’s personal security detail. As the deployment wound down, he oversaw the return of the brigade’s equipment to the U.S.

Over a period of eight months that ended in July 2011, Bennett used his position and Walker’s help to send military equipment home from Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak and Kandahar Air Field.

When authorities found their haul in the U.S. months later, it looked like a swap meet for military gear. Among the tools, radios and other electronics, the duo stashed a Lightweight Laser Designator Module and Target Locator Module. The portable laser-targeting system, which looks roughly like a large set of binoculars on a short tripod, is used to designate targets and call for fires.

Their main target was the Defense Logistics Agency’s excess property office, which is meant to field gear for reuse by troops in the field. Instead, the duo vouched for the gear as though it were returning with their unit, had it placed on a pallet, wrapped in plastic and shipped through Air Force channels from Kandahar to the U.S. Bennett filled out the shipping paperwork himself, listing Walker as his co-signer.

The two would store their ill-gotten gains in a shipping container on the base or behind a building at the redeployment cell on Kandahar Air Field, according to the indictments.

Some property they abandoned in Afghanistan. Some they would give to other soldiers. The rest they sent home.

Thefts uncovered

The plot unraveled in the U.S., according to court records, when investigators discovered that a separate group of soldiers had schemed to steal and sell 21 M68 combat scopes, valued at $6,700, from the rear detachment’s arms room at Fort Bragg.

On Sept. 22, 2011, in the middle of a property inventory, a handful of soldiers confessed to the plot, according to Criminal Investigation Command records. Among the chain of confessions, Walker told CID agents that he bought two scopes from Bennett.

When agents searched Walker’s desk, they found nine scopes, an Army GPS unit and an Army radio, as well as a 10th scope in Walker’s backpack.

At Walker’s home, they found much more: 442 5.56 mm loose blank rounds; 127 5.56mm-linked blank rounds; 57 7.62mm-linked blank rounds; 47 .50-caliber blank rounds; 62 7.62mm-linked live rounds; five tactical radios and five laptops. It was only the beginning.

Overnight, agents searched Bennett’s place and found a military trailer loaded with government property, 94 items initially valued at $126,000. The vast hoard of tools, military electronics and tactical equipment ranged from the mundane (laptops, printers and monitors) and obscure (three boxes containing Army spectacles) to the contraband (a body armor set and tactical vest system) and exotic (two voice translators and a speaker fielded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

That still wasn’t all. Bennett waived his legal rights, telling agents he had a military storage container at his home in Georgia “80 percent” full of Army equipment: vehicle engines, computer monitors and a Polaris off-road vehicle, as well as engine parts and tools.

Bennett told them that, during his 2008-09 deployment, he took the equipment from Forward Operating Base Speicher through the DLA surplus office. The haul there included an engine, various tools and, curiously, a tail rotor blade from an Apache helicopter.

By this point, agents had questioned Elder, who served on Bennett’s escort team in Afghanistan. Elder denied knowing about the arms room thefts or any stolen equipment, saying he “was not sure why his name was brought up in this investigation and ... he did not like any of the individuals who were currently involved,” CID’s investigation states.

Walker, who was cooperating with authorities, told agents he and Bennett had given a toolbox each to Elder and another soldier. That afternoon, agents found the stolen toolbox during a search of Elder’s home. He was later charged with making a false official statement and larceny.

'What I did was wrong'

Both Walker and Bennett were contrite in court late last year as they were sentenced.

Walker apologized for his misdeeds and blamed them in part on a brain injury he suffered in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan. He said he had since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and should have been sent home.

“I knew then the difference between right and wrong. However, I don’t think I was making the same well-thought-out decisions I was making in the past,” he told the sentencing judge.

Bennett, at his sentencing, admitted guilt and asked for mercy. He claimed to have never made any money from the thefts and said the MRAP engines were “for training purposes of our soldiers, of my soldiers in the brigade.”

“Your honor, I served in the Army for 23 years. What I did was wrong,” he said. “I accept responsibility. I blame no one. I just ask that you be lenient so I can continue to support my family and my community.”

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle asked Bennett why he kept the items off post if they were really for training soldiers.

“Sir, my unit had just returned. We didn’t have a motor pool where we could work out of,” Bennett replied. “I am employed at a shop in downtown Fayetteville, and I have access to the tools to repair and make the items functional or build a display — the stands for the engines so we can train on them.”

Rangarajan, the federal prosecutor, argued Bennett planned to use the gear for his business, to “upgrade souped-up cars.”

Sun had another explanation, likening Bennett to a “pack rat.”

“There’s underwear, there’s packs, there’s all kinds of stuff that he just collected,” Sun told the judge. “As Mr. Bennett said in response to the court’s question, there’s no evidence that he sold any of it or intended to sell any of it.”

More fallout

Federal prosecutors had only gone after Bennett and Walker and had released the rest of the conspirators for the Army to deal with.

As the criminal cases wound their way through the courts, the 10 months that followed taxed the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade’s 235-person headquarters company.

Each of the accused soldiers had to be escorted to appointments and court dates, decreasing the numbers of available personnel at headquarters company as the brigade trained for missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

“The hours of productivity lost to escorting the soldiers caught up in CW3 Bennett’s actions adversely affected the headquarters company’s ability to train and return to full combat readiness,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Verschueren, formerly of the 525th, in a witness impact statement contained in public court records.

Verschueren declined further comment for this article.

The thefts revealed a pattern of lax oversight of the unit’s inventory, which left an opening for the thefts, a former official with knowledge of the case told Army Times.

The accused soldiers involved were primarily junior enlisted soldiers. The most severe punishment was handed to a specialist who was sentenced to 11 months confinement and a bad-conduct discharge for stealing and disposing of the scopes.

“His willingness to abuse his rank and position of responsibility by involving subordinates in his crimes is a travesty,” Rangarajan said of Bennett at his sentencing. “The time spent on re-establishing unit cohesion directly impacted the brigade’s ability to effectively regenerate and prepare for its wartime mission and placed undue stress on everyone involved or affected by Chief Warrant Officer Bennett’s activities.”

Eyewitnesses to murder

One of the members of the unit facing trial was Elder. At the same time, his commander was pursuing an Article 15 separation against him for an alleged pattern of misconduct; he was allegedly coming late to work and had trouble on the deployment. But he may have been struggling more than anyone knew.

Unbeknownst to his command, Elder had civilian legal troubles, pleading guilty to aggravated battery in November 2011 for a bar fight the year before in Hutchinson, Kan. Elder reportedly hit a woman in the face, leaving her with $60,000 in medical bills.

Elder, a husband and father of two, was also struggling with the effects of post-traumatic stress. An hour before Elder shot Tisdale and himself, he posted a final chilling message to Facebook, according to a report in the Fayetteville Observer.

“My mind in the past couple of years has folded on itself. I just went to the Dr. and they said I just tested positive for Dementia.”

Elder’s Facebook post also expressed frustration that the court-martial for the stolen tool kit would cost him his military benefits.

Elder was due to be separated and in the midst of a medical review, but the theft charges threatened to derail the process, meaning he would have lost medical care and disability among his other benefits.

Near the brigade’s headquarters at 3:30 p.m. on June 28, Elder shot and killed Tisdale, wounded a second soldier and killed himself.

Tisdale had been one of the speakers at the safety brief, delivered behind a podium on an athletic field. Just after it ended, Elder walked up to Tisdale and told the master sergeant with him, “That was a nice speech,” before the fatal shot, according to a witness.

The podium has been torn down and a tree planted in its place to memorialize Tisdale.

The impact of Bennett’s actions on the brigade “transcends the value of stolen property or man-hours lost,” Verschueren said in his witness statement, as Tisdale’s violent death traumatized many soldiers and has driven out some promising junior enlisted soldiers vital to the brigade.

Many of the troops at the briefing, he said in the statement, were “eyewitnesses to a murder-suicide that never should have happened, but for CW3 Bennett’s actions which set off a chain of events leading up to that tragic day.”

Many of the troops at the briefing, he said, were “eyewitnesses to a murder-suicide that never should have happened, but for CW3 Bennett’s actions which set off a chain of events leading up to that tragic day.”

Bennett’s attorney, during sentencing, pointed back at the 525th’s leaders.

“The leaders of those units blaming Mr. Bennett for their problems in the unit is not consistent with the way the Army does its business,” Sun said. “I don’t think they would be saying that to an Army court, but I guess through the U.S. attorney, they think that it’s appropriate to tell you that. We don’t think it is.” ■

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Verschueren declined the reporter’s request for comment. Comments attributed to him were obtained through a witness impact statement he made in connection with criminal proceedings against other soldiers in his unit and included as part of public court records.

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