On the morning of May 11, 2008, a U.S. Army private second class named Matthew Warren Brown died of a single gunshot wound to the head while manning a watchtower at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Brown was 20 years old. He was a skinny, all-American kid, a bit aimless but affable and unassuming. He was a good guy. You could see it in his face. At his funeral back home in Pennsylvania, some 200 people showed up.
In the aftermath of Brown’s death, army investigators created files about the circumstances. The bullet that killed him was fired from his own weapon, an M4 carbine. He was working the six A.M. shift, alone in the watchtower by the fortified main gate to the base. The tower was known as the Gun Tower. It was made of concrete, and looked medieval when viewed from the outside. It was three stories tall. On the second and third floors it had openings covered with two-piece Plexiglas windows, some of which had broken off and been left lying in shards on the floors. The forward operating base was known as FOB Asadabad, after a beleaguered provincial capital up the road. It was a former Soviet stronghold, a grim-looking installation on a shelf above a fast river in the Hindu Kush mountains, near the border with Pakistan. It had two concentric walls. The outer FOB contained a helicopter landing zone, munitions and fuel depots, vehicle parking, barracks for Afghan army units, and a bazaar where locals were allowed to sell their goods to the Americans stationed there. The inner FOB contained living quarters and offices for hundreds of soldiers and civilian contractors, and a small detention center used to hold suspected insurgents before shipping them on for processing elsewhere.
Matthew Brown had been plucked from an artillery unit at a distant firebase and assigned to Asadabad to work at the detention center. Like the other low-ranking soldiers there, part of his job was to stand guard in the towers. It was a dull duty. On the morning in question, staying alert was a problem for Brown. Soon after he began his shift, the sergeant of the guard—the man responsible for the soldiers manning the towers and gates—tried to raise him on the radio. Only after the third attempt did Brown respond intelligibly. The sergeant went to the chow hall to assemble breakfast plates for his crew, then drove to the Gun Tower, arriving around 6:25 A.M. He grabbed a Gatorade and Brown’s breakfast, and shouted up the staircase that he was coming. He heard nothing in response.
When he got to the top, he found Brown seated on a high bench at an elevated gun table, but slumped over and leaning against the wall and Plexiglas window to his left. At first he thought Brown was sleeping. Then he thought Brown had a bloody nose. Then he saw blood and brain matter on the ground. He set the food and Gatorade on the table. He tapped Brown as if to wake him, and felt his neck for a pulse. Now he saw blood and brain matter on the wall and ceiling. Brown was still alive. He was breathing shallowly and making a gurgling noise. His weapon was standing on the floor, muzzle up, with the strap loosely around his left leg. A bullet casing lay nearby.
The sergeant was not an investigator, expected to withhold judgment. He assumed the obvious—that Brown had shot himself. He radioed to the base office and the medical team, but got no response from either. Finally he got through to some civilian security contractors working for a company called Cobra. He told them there was an emergency in the Gun Tower, and asked them to send help. By now, Brown had stopped breathing. A man from Cobra soon appeared, felt him for a pulse, and said, “Yeah, he’s dead.” A few minutes later a doctor arrived and made the finding formal.
The doctor was an army major named Matthew Mayfield. A medic who accompanied him tilted Brown upright on the bench so his wounds could be examined. The entry wound was a hole in his front right temple; it was a “contact wound” of the sort made when a muzzle is placed directly against skin. The exit wound was a larger hole on the back left side of Brown’s head. Mayfield laid Brown into an approximation of his original position against the wall for photographic purposes. Later someone else got him upright again and strapped him to the bench to keep him from sliding under the table.
Far to the west, at the Bagram air base, the army’s Criminal Investigative Division, the C.I.D., promised to send investigators. Meanwhile, all sorts of people milled around in the Gun Tower, disturbing the scene and contaminating evidence. The sole person there with knowledge of normal procedure in such circumstances, a National Guard lieutenant named Brad Faust, who in civilian life was a Virginia police officer, tried to get people to move away from the scene. But he had no authority over the situation, and grew so frustrated that he left to interview soldiers nearby. By noon, when word came that the C.I.D. investigators had not yet boarded a helicopter in Bagram, Brown was placed into a rubberized body bag, carried down the stairs, loaded into an ambulance, and driven to the coolness of the women’s shower room in the inner FOB, where he lay at rest. Guards were placed outside.
That evening, Brown’s body was airlifted to Bagram. Two days later it arrived in a casket at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and after a flag-draped off-loading was delivered a short drive away to the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. That office is the coroner for the U.S. military and other federal agencies. It is responsible not only for performing autopsies on the dead, but also for carefully considering the evidence presented to it before rendering a solemn finding on the manner of death—preferably a choice among “natural,” “accident,” “homicide,” or “suicide,” and rarely and reluctantly “undetermined” or “pending.”
Brown’s autopsy concluded with the obvious: the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Blood tests showed that Brown had enough of the sedative Valium in his system to render him incapable of coherent action. As for the manner of death, on May 15, 2008, four days after the event, a deputy medical examiner in Dover, Lieutenant Colonel Ladd Tremaine, officially declared Brown’s death to be a suicide. The examiner had little information to go on, since the C.I.D. investigation in Afghanistan had barely begun. But the ruling didn’t seem to account for some of the physical evidence. High-resolution photographs of Brown’s fully clothed body as it arrived in Dover show no signs of back spatter. Back spatter is the atomized blowback of blood from an entry wound caused by a high-velocity round fired at extremely close range. In Brown’s case, with an entry wound on the right side, had the gun been fired as it was said to have been fired—stock down, muzzle up, between his legs—crime-scene experts would expect it to have been present, and it was not.
A deputy medical examiner declared Brown’s death a suicide before the army had completed its investigation.
The belief that Brown had killed himself was widely shared in Asadabad, even though not a single soldier who gave a statement after his death was aware of any recent difficulties he may have had. Those who knew him best thought of him as a goofy kid, quiet around his superiors, but relaxed and funny among his peers, invigorated by a recent home leave, excited by a subsequent promotion, and looking forward to the successful conclusion of his army service after a few short years. His drug use, if they were being honest, was not exceptional. Valium was a way to get through the days. They were surprised that Brown had killed himself. They attributed it to the unknowable in life, and moved on.
II. THE CASE FILES
Not so, Brown’s mother, Sandra Evans. She lived in a trailer park with her second husband on the shores of Clear Lake in Northern California. She and her son were close. During his recent leave they had spent a lighthearted week with friends and family, swapping stories and enjoying the pleasure of being together. Brown was open with her to a degree that he could not be with his father. Nonetheless he waited until the very end of the visit to tell her what was on his mind.
They were in her car, driving from Clear Lake to the Sacramento airport. Brown put on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the operatic Queen song about a condemned man crying out to his mother. He said he did not want to go back to Afghanistan. His problem was not with the enemy, he explained, but rather with one of his sergeants, whom he described as a thug. Brown told his mother that the sergeant was running a drug ring, smuggling in prescription narcotics from Pakistan and selling them to American troops eager to tune out the war. Brown told his mother he had made a mistake: he had let the sergeant co-opt him into being the courier who took the risk of acquiring the narcotics at the bazaar in the outer FOB, then carried the contraband past security into the inner FOB. Recently he had told the sergeant he wanted out. The sergeant had refused, and had threatened him. As Sandra Evans drove her son to the airport, he told her that he might not return alive. Two weeks later he was dead.
When C.I.D. agents finally got to her door more than a month after Brown’s death, Evans says, she told them about her son’s account of a drug ring at the base, a domineering sergeant, a threat of violence, and his premonition of death. She rejected the medical examiner’s finding of suicide not because she thought it was premature, but because she believed her son had been either killed accidentally or murdered.
From that day forward the army might have considered the possibility that Brown’s demise was perhaps not a suicide. It could have launched a rigorous investigation. Instead, as the files show, the army disposed of the case expediently, without following up on many key questions. Evans received some we-share-your-sorrow letters and a routine insurance payout, her share of which came to $200,000.
Evans did not know it at the time, but she had company. Hundreds of other non-combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ruled to be suicides, leaving some families feeling isolated, powerless, and angry. Like Evans, they wonder whether other factors were at play, and whether other causes of death might have merited consideration. The common denominator is the families’ bewilderment: the suicides took place without any warning signs, sudden self-destructive acts that could not have been foreseen and are not explained by the official findings. The precise numbers are unknowable. Some of the suicides must indeed have been authentic, despite what the families think. Suicide, not combat, is the leading cause of death among U.S. soldiers. And proving the C.I.D. wrong would require access to closely held files and expensive, painstaking research. Most military families lack the resources to challenge the official findings. But the numbers we do know suggest that army investigators are mishandling noncombat deaths in war zones, adding to the anguish of families whose loved ones died while serving their country. Since 2001, the U.S. military appears to have prosecuted only five soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq for the murder of fellow soldiers. During the same period, it has ruled the deaths of 362 soldiers to be suicides. That disparity, by itself, seems to indicate that something is amiss. A recent study in Military Medicine found that the suicide rate among U.S. civilians, adjusted for age and gender, is roughly comparable to that of soldiers. Yet among civilians, the suicide rate is only 2.5 times higher than the murder rate. Among soldiers in combat zones, if the military is to be believed, it is roughly 70 times higher.
If someone killed Brown, it was a sloppy plan. The salvation for the killer was that the C.I.D. was even sloppier.
Sandra Evans wanted answers. She fired off her first letter to the C.I.D. 20 days after her son’s death, and never let up from there. Her letter-writing campaign widened to include Senator Barbara Boxer, President Obama, and many others. She did not represent herself well on paper, but her anguish and skepticism were both real and legitimate. In response to her entreaties, the army gave her the brush-off. The C.I.D. informed Evans that, because the investigation was active, no files could be released. She kept after it anyway. The investigation eventually morphed into a dead-end inquiry into the sale of narcotics at Asadabad. No charges were ever filed. The investigation was formally closed on February 8, 2009.
Several months later, about a year after her son’s death, the case files from the C.I.D. started trickling in to Evans’s trailer. They consisted largely of investigators’ logs, along with sworn statements by soldiers on the scene. The files appeared to be disorganized and incomplete. They contained omissions, heavy redactions, and, maddeningly, a large number of unexplored contradictions. For a few years Evans and some of her son’s fellow soldiers tried to make sense of them. They marked up the original copies, and made a mess of them. Eventually, Evans went online and identified a professional—a lawyer named James Culp, who had an army background and deep experience with military criminal investigations. Culp is an acquaintance of mine who several years ago helped me to deconstruct a war crime in Iraq. When Evans first contacted him, he refused to get involved. She kept at him for 16 months, week after week, until he agreed to see her.
In 2014, Culp and Evans met at a hotel near San Jose, California. Their conversation was long and intense. By the end of it, Culp had agreed to take on the challenge of sorting out the case files, and to do it for free. He did not know what he was getting into. It took him more than two years to decipher all the paperwork and redactions. What he found—based on more than two dozen witness statements collected by military investigators, their official 17-page report, and a full-scale re-creation of the crime scene by independent forensics experts—raises disturbing questions about the C.I.D.’s investigation into Matthew Brown’s death.
III. THE VALIUM FACTOR
Brown was born on September 1, 1987, in San Diego, after his mother went into labor at a McDonald’s. His father was serving in the navy at the time. Eventually the couple divorced. Sandra remained on the West Coast. Matthew and his younger sister moved with their father to Zelienople, Pennsylvania, an unadorned town about a half-hour north of Pittsburgh. His father became an engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration. Matthew was placed in special-education programs because he was severely dyslexic. After graduating from high school in 2006 he joined the army, and eventually was posted to an artillery battery at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Brown was not a model soldier. He performed well in the field, but hated physical training, and chafed at the discipline of garrison life. He lived for the moment. He played video games. He had no sense for the value of time. He went AWOL twice, and both times binged on cocaine. His first absence lasted several weeks, until he tired of partying and reported for duty. His second absence took him to a construction job in Pennsylvania and lasted three months, until the local police grabbed him and shipped him back to Fort Bragg. The army fined him, demoted him to buck private, and gave him the choice of getting kicked out or shipping off to Afghanistan. He chose Afghanistan.
In December 2007, about six months before his death, Brown arrived at a large American firebase called Blessing. It stood beside the Pech River among the Hindu Kush mountains in a heavily contested valley. The role of Blessing’s big guns was to pound the mountainsides and provide fire support in defense of smaller outposts at risk of being overrun. There is no record of Brown ever having expressed an opinion about that mission or the larger purpose of the war. He was relatively happy at Blessing, which he considered to be an improvement over Fort Bragg. But he didn’t stay long. In January 2008 he was transferred to detail at the field detention center at FOB Asadabad. His barracks was partitioned with plywood into five individual bunkrooms, plus a common area furnished with a table, sofa, microwave, and TV. All of the residents worked at the detention center. Those in the lower ranks also had Gun Tower duties to perform.
Two days before his death, Brown was promoted to private second class. He was pleased. He told the sergeant who promoted him that he hoped to rise to the rank of specialist before leaving the army. He went to the chaplain and asked about the requirements to become a chaplain’s assistant. For once he was planning for the future. He borrowed a PlayStation 2 from a friend, promising to return it soon.
For the midnight shift the normal procedure was to place two guards in the Gun Tower so they could keep each other awake. On the eve of Brown’s death the two guards were friends, Jay Flannery and Aaron Cianfrocco. Both were specialists, two ranks higher than Brown. Before going on duty that night they saw Brown at the barracks. They knew he liked to sedate himself with Valium, and Flannery thought he seemed “out of it.” He yelled at Brown, who had to take the six A.M. shift, to go to bed.
At five A.M., Flannery called someone to rouse Brown. Brown got up, got dressed, and, with his right boot unlaced, made his way toward the tower. A sergeant stopped him because he seemed drunk. Brown said that he had just woken up. The sergeant checked to see that his weapon was on Safe. He got close enough to sniff for alcohol, and smelled none. Brown continued toward the Gun Tower and got there about five minutes late. From the third floor Flannery and Cianfrocco shouted at him to “hurry the fuck up.” They swore at him again when they passed him on the second floor going down, as he was on his way up. He kept his head down, mumbled something, and went past them carrying his M4. He was evidently doped up—far more so than he had been the night before. (Cianfrocco declined to speak for this story, and Flannery did not respond to a request for comment.)
Flannery and Cianfrocco caught a ride with the sergeant of the guard, who happened to be passing by. When they got to the barracks they dumped their gear and briefly discussed the situation. According to their subsequent sworn statements, they decided to inform their superior, Sergeant First Class Armando Torres, the M.P. in charge of the detention center. The time was just after six A.M.
The next half-hour is crucial to the story. The witness statements about events during that short period contain numerous contradictions that the C.I.D. investigators failed to explore in their report. But for now it is enough to bridge the complexities with a few unequivocal facts. Having dropped their gear at the barracks, Specialists Flannery and Cianfrocco wound their way to the chow hall. They were there, having breakfast with Torres and his deputy, a staff sergeant named Matthew Jackson, when a soldier hurried in around 6:30 and said there was an emergency in the Gun Tower. Torres and Jackson immediately left for the tower, arriving roughly three minutes later. Flannery and Cianfrocco stayed behind to finish their meal.
IV. SCENE OF THE CRIME
When Torres and Jackson got to the Gun Tower, the third floor was occupied by the doctor and the medic. Although Torres had no training in such affairs, he seemed
now to place himself front and center. He asked Jackson to remain on the third floor to make sure that nothing was touched while he went off to retrieve a camera and report to the company commander. Brown sat dead on the bench, stiffening and leaking blood from his head.
While Torres was gone, Lieutenant Faust—the cop from Virginia—showed up and took notes. The statement he later gave to the C.I.D. was the most complete description provided. It included a detail that stands out as especially significant. Faust observed a small hole in a Plexiglas window well forward of Brown’s body. Of all the witnesses only Faust mentioned it. He characterized the hole as “fragmented,” and sketched its location in the window pane. It was the sort of hole that a 5.56-mm. round from an M4 might have made. The C.I.D. never performed ballistic or trajectory studies. Subsequent examinations have suggested the hole was in a location unlikely to have resulted from a self-inflicted shot to the head from the muzzle-up weapon loosely strapped around Brown’s left leg.
When Torres returned with a camera, Faust asked him to recuse himself and withdraw from the scene because of his close ties to the deceased—standard police procedure. But Torres stayed, saying he had volunteered to Major Mayfield to photograph the scene. Faust told the other soldiers who were now milling around the third floor to leave, until only he, Torres, and Mayfield remained.
After Torres finished photographing the scene, Faust escorted him to the base of the tower, leaving only Mayfield inside. Faust put a soldier on guard and gave orders that no one was to enter the tower until the C.I.D. agents arrived. But his orders didn’t carry any weight, and he left.
Torres was not the only military policeman at Asadabad. A group of M.P.’s were helping provide security to provincial reconstruction teams. These were full-fledged policemen with crime-scene training, not primarily jailers like Torres. On the morning of Brown’s death all of them had departed on missions except for one, a sergeant. When he heard of the trouble, he grabbed his shoulder holster and ran to the tower. According to the C.I.D. report, when he got there he was stopped by Torres, who told him that his assistance was not required. Since Torres outranked him, the M.P. turned and went away.
The company commander, a captain, had ordered Torres to secure Brown’s living quarters, and to have Flannery and Cianfrocco report to him. Torres found the two soldiers in the inner FOB and sent them to see the captain. The captain told them to submit sworn statements. They typed them into a standard form on an army laptop, and Torres loaded the statements onto a thumb drive, which he retained. The time was nine A.M. The C.I.D. investigators were still at Bagram.
Torres’s movements over the next few hours are unreported, but by 11:30, when medics strapped Brown to the bench to keep him from sliding into his own blood on the floor, Torres was present. A half-hour later, when Mayfield arrived to remove the body, Torres followed him up to the third floor to assist with the job. Extracting Brown from the bench required that his weapon be removed from his leg. Mayfield took care of it, handed the weapon to Torres, and instructed him to switch its firing selector from Semi to Safe.
Torres did more than that. Having rendered the weapon safe, he disappeared with it to the tower’s second floor to clear it. Wearing rubber gloves he dropped the magazine, ejected a round from the firing chamber, checked the chamber to verify that it was empty, reloaded the ejected round into the magazine, and clicked the magazine back into place. Investigators later questioned why he had taken the weapon to the second floor to clear it. He explained that he wanted to minimize the risk to people on the floor above. This implied, implausibly, that clearing the weapon might cause it to fire. The investigators did not challenge his logic.
Torres returned Brown’s M4 to the third floor. Three months later, long after the medical examiner had ruled the death a suicide, an army forensics laboratory in Georgia found no fingerprints on the weapon. It is impossible to know whether anyone had wiped the rifle down. It was not tested for DNA. Brown’s hands were found to have no gunpowder residue on them.
According to Jackson’s sworn statement, he and Torres had lunch. Then, contrary to common sense and crime-scene norms, they returned to the Gun Tower and spent 15 minutes inside alone. Jackson said they looked for the bullet and ricochet marks. He did not say why. To any competent investigator, this statement alone should have set off alarms. But the C.I.D. agents never followed up on it. And Torres never mentioned the visit at all. (Torres and Jackson declined to comment for this story.)
V. DRUG RING
The C.I.D. agents arrived around two P.M. on the day of Brown’s death. There were two of them. Their names have been blacked out in the files. Torres was the first person with direct involvement that they spoke to. He informed them that Brown had shot himself. He said that he had taken pictures, that Brown’s body had been removed, that his weapon had been cleared, and that the crime scene had been disturbed by medical personnel. He also said, incorrectly, that he was the only M.P. currently on the base.
The agents got to the Gun Tower at 2:45, and for the next two hours and 45 minutes they performed a detailed examination of the third floor, including mapping the locations of the blood and gore, and taking measurements of the gun table, the chair, and the window. Nothing in that room was supposed to escape their attention. They were unable to find the bullet or fragments of it, even when they returned the following morning with a metal detector. In retrospect, on some of the simplest matters involved in detailing a crime scene, they made fundamental errors. They got the dimensions of the gun table wrong. This was an important miscalculation, because it allowed for subsequent miscalculations to stand. Furthermore, when the agents came to the hole in the Plexiglas window that Lieutenant Faust clearly described as fragmented, one of them wrote: “Based upon the point of impact, possible trajectory of the projectile, the size of the hole in the Plexiglas, and the lack of cracks or stress marks around the hole, it did not appear as though the hole was made by a small arms round.” That was it. They never returned to the subject, even after Faust, their fellow policeman, submitted his observations. Ten years later, under pressure from James Culp, the C.I.D. produced photographs from the files that clearly showed a fractured and splintered hole.
After inspecting the tower, the agents went to Brown’s quarters, a scene that had been secured by Torres. There, in a plastic bag, they found 12 empty blister packs, each of which had contained 10 milligram pills of Valium manufactured by Roche Pharmaceuticals of Pakistan. The discovery was significant. This was a high-quality industrial product that was coming across the nearby border, and it suggested access to more than an artisanal level of Pakistani narcotics. Three more blister packs appeared during a second search the following afternoon.
The military suspected that someone at the base was providing soldiers with an ample supply of drugs. Later that year, Culp was told, the C.I.D. formally named two unidentified soldiers as suspects in a drug operation at Asadabad. After one of the soldiers invoked his right to legal counsel, however, the initiative was dropped. The optics would certainly have been bad for the army: Asadabad as a staging point for Pakistani narcotics flowing unchecked to U.S. troops throughout Afghanistan. On the base, Valium abuse was so widespread that a few months after Brown’s death, Culp learned, all 120 soldiers in his battery were quietly pulled from their individual barracks and forced to sleep in open bays, to deprive them of privacy for the remainder of their tour. As often occurs, the army preferred to avoid embarrassment rather than to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.
However Matthew Brown died, the existence of a drug ring at Asadabad could have provided a motive to kill him. He was unreliable, a whiner who wanted out, a courier who knew all sides, a kid getting high on his own supply. On the morning of his death, his condition in the Gun Tower could have landed him in the hospital, where questions would have been raised and he might have begun to talk.
None of this proves that Brown was murdered. The inner life of even those closest to us can be secret, and some people commit suicide without warning, leaving their families bewildered. It is completely possible that Brown took his own life. It is also possible that everything Brown told his mother about the drug ring was untrue, and that Torres and Jackson were guilty of nothing more than inadvertently violating standard crime-scene protocols. The point is not that we know Brown was killed. The point is that we cannot be certain how he died, because the C.I.D. investigators seem barely to have considered any possibility other than suicide, even after they stumbled upon evidence of a drug problem at Asadabad. Their greatest concerns appeared to be Brown’s habitual drug use and the strange disappearance of his wallet. It was not found after careful searches of his quarters and the tower, as well as two searches of his body. Yet it mysteriously materialized inside the body bag after it arrived at Bagram. Had someone been worried about what it might contain? Jackson had accompanied Brown’s corpse on the flight from Asadabad. The investigators questioned him but drew no larger conclusions, and ultimately shrugged it off. Later, when Senator Barbara Boxer inquired about the missing wallet, the army told her—incorrectly—that the C.I.D. agents had found it as soon as they arrived at Asadabad.
VI. FORENSIC RECONSTRUCTION
The culmination of their investigation occurred on the seventh and final day of their visit to the base. It was May 18, three days after the medical examiner in Dover had declared Brown’s death a suicide. On that day, several significant scraps of evidence came to light. From additional questioning, for instance, it became clear that the use of narcotics on the base was far more common than had at first been acknowledged in written statements. Had the C.I.D. fully investigated the implications, it might have come to a more thorough and convincing explanation of Brown’s death—even if it was a suicide. Instead the investigators caught a flight out that evening, leaving behind an unfinished job and questions that remain to this day.
Even more troubling, the sworn statements are full of material omissions and contradictions when it comes to where the four main witnesses were during the critical half-hour between 6 A.M., when Flannery and Cianfrocco left the tower, and 6:30 A.M., when a soldier rushed into the chow hall with news of Brown’s death. Jackson, for example, stated that Torres was with him in the chow hall continuously from 6 until 6:40. According to him, when Flannery and Cianfrocco joined them for breakfast, around 6:15, they told Torres that Brown had been late for duty, but failed to mention that he was also high on drugs while on guard duty in the Gun Tower—a serious security threat.
Flannery gave two accounts of the same story. The first was contained in the sworn statement gathered by Torres. Flannery stated that he and Cianfrocco spotted Torres in the chow hall and informed him of Brown’s “tardiness and appearance,” and that Torres said he would check on Brown after he finished his breakfast. The second was a different version that Flannery gave the following day directly to the C.I.D. It added what turns out to be an important detail: on the way to the chow hall, he and Cianfrocco briefly stopped by the base’s recreation center, known as the M.W.R., to get some information from the Internet. He stated that they then proceeded to the chow hall, where they joined Jackson and Torres for breakfast, omitting any mention of Brown at all.
We do not know the content of Cianfrocco’s initial statement, for a simple reason: it was on the thumb drive retained by Torres, who later told investigators that it had been “corrupted.” In his statement to the C.I.D., however, Cianfrocco said that he and Flannery stopped by the recreation center to look up the workout of the day on a fitness site. They then proceeded to the chow hall, where they were waiting for their eggs to finish when Torres walked in around 6:25—not just after 6, as Jackson testified. According to Cianfrocco, he informed Torres of Brown’s “tardiness and actions,” and Torres answered that he would go to the tower after breakfast. Cianfrocco testified that he, Flannery, and Torres then sat down with Jackson, who was already there, and “started talking about the normal daily randomness that people do.” Despite Brown’s seriously impaired condition in the tower? The C.I.D. did not challenge the assertion.
It is hard to understand why a timeline that should have been simple became so complicated. The C.I.D. failed to resolve even the most glaring contradictions in the accounts of the four main witnesses. When Flannery and Cianfrocco described their brief visit to the recreation center, the M.W.R., they both omitted a crucial fact: Torres was there, too. Torres stated so on the very first line of his sworn testimony: “At approx. 0615 SPC [Cianfrocco] notified me at the MWR that PV2 Brown was late to the gun tower two days in a row.” This means that Torres, by his own account, had not been where the other witnesses claimed he was that morning. It also implies that Cianfrocco and Flannery informed Torres only that Brown was late—not that he was severely incapacitated while on guard duty. Once again the C.I.D. seems simply to have accepted this, despite Cianfrocco’s sworn statement that he and Flannery had just concluded in the barracks that they had to search out Torres and inform him of Brown’s condition. The C.I.D. also failed to establish Torres’s movements between the rec center and the chow hall, where he was having breakfast when word of the emergency arrived around 6:30.
There is one more statement that requires explanation. A soldier in the barracks, Specialist Michael Merritt, told the C.I.D. that Flannery and Cianfrocco woke him up around 6:10. They were loudly discussing Brown’s incapacitation. Ten minutes later, around 6:20—10 minutes before news of Brown’s death arrived at the chow hall—Torres appeared in the barracks and ordered Merritt to prepare for unscheduled guard duty because Brown had killed himself.
Merritt’s statement was missing from the files acquired by Sandra Evans. It appeared only recently, a decade after it was made. If the timing in his account is accurate, it would mean that Torres knew of Brown’s death before he entered the chow hall for breakfast, and before news of the emergency subsequently arrived. But it is impossible to know from the files, and that is the larger issue now. The C.I.D.’s failure to examine the contradictions and omissions of key witnesses defies understanding. It indicates a profound institutional breakdown—one that casts serious doubt on the military’s ability to conduct thorough and objective investigations into the deaths of U.S. soldiers overseas.
The C.I.D. also bungled some of the most basic physical evidence surrounding Brown’s demise. Leaving aside Brown’s incapacitation, it has always been difficult to visualize how exactly he was supposed to have shot himself. He was sitting on an elevated bench, in front of an elevated table, built with an elevated footrest on which his feet were placed. The weapon was between his legs. It was found muzzle up, with the stock either on the floor or the footrest and the strap wrapped loosely around his left leg. Because it was underneath the table, the weapon was angled back toward Brown’s seated position. The bullet entered his right temple forward of his right ear, and exited the left rear part of his head before proceeding on the same straight trajectory, either up to the ceiling, where it ricocheted, or straight to the wall or Plexiglas window. Once all the physical evidence was mapped by forensics experts, it seemed unlikely or impossible that Brown could have contorted himself in such a way to make all this work. But the C.I.D. never did the calculations.
Earlier this year—a decade after Brown’s death—a forensics company called Visual Evidence tried to piece the puzzle together. Visual Evidence is based in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It is in the legal-support business and offers a variety of services, including crime-scene re-creations that can withstand cross-examination in court. The company and its co-founder, Manfred W. Troibner, decided to take on the Brown inquiry pro bono, having heard about Sandra Evans’s quest from a forensics and blood-spatter expert who was looking into the case. Working with the C.I.D.’s measurements, his team built a full-scale replica of the death scene, including the elevated bench and table, the Plexiglas window, and the blood stains on the walls and ceiling. They used a replica M4 carbine, and various lasers and aiming devices. At the same time, they began to produce computer-generated images of the possible ballistics. They did not set out to prove a theory, but to explore the physical realities of the death scene as best it could be reconstructed.
As they progressed, it began to seem that the only way to duplicate the shot that fit the evidence provided was to have a surrogate Brown rest his head on the table, as if unconscious, with the shot being fired by someone else from an angle that Brown could not have achieved. Some important questions remained unanswered. In a small concrete room, why had no bullet or bullet fragments been found? And what was the cause of the hole in the Plexiglas window? Given the dimensions of the gun table, the hole appeared to be too far forward to have resulted from any of the possible trajectories. Nonetheless, Visual Evidence began to lean toward a conclusion of murder.
A scenario that fit the laboratory reconstruction was this: A killer came up the stairs in the rear of the room, observed Brown passed out on Valium with his head on the table, retrieved Brown’s weapon from somewhere in the room, racked a round into the chamber, switched the selector from Safe to Semi, placed the muzzle against Brown’s head from a position slightly below and to the right, and fired a single round. Brown slumped to the left against the wall. In this scenario, the killer would then have put Brown’s left leg through the strap, lowered the weapon’s stock to the floor, and immediately departed. It would have been a sloppy plan, hastily executed. If that is what happened, the salvation for the killer was that the C.I.D. was even sloppier.
VII. CIRCLING THE WAGONS
C.I.D. investigators are the only federal agents who do not go through rigorous training at one of the federal law-enforcement centers; instead they join the army, serve as M.P.’s for at least a year, then get 16 weeks at the M.P. school for special agents. Although they do not draw formal conclusions about the crimes they investigate, they inevitably make assumptions that shape the gathering of evidence. Like all law-enforcement agents, they feel pressed for time. Suicides are faster and easier than murders to resolve. In a war zone, they are also relatively easy to stage.
As a practical matter, grieving families have no recourse once the military rules a death a suicide. Not once over the first 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq did the C.I.D. reverse itself and reopen a suicide investigation in either country. Unlike civilian police departments, it does not have an internal-affairs division. It has a formal quality-assurance program to review the performance of investigations, to little avail. Theoretically it is subject to review by the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s Office, and when sufficient political pressure is brought to bear, such reviews are performed, but any resulting criticisms or recommendations are freely ignored. In 2015, for instance, the I.G. issued a scathing report criticizing the agents who had investigated an accusation of sexual assault, and recommended that the investigation be reopened—and the C.I.D. flatly refused to do so. There were no consequences.
Last spring, thanks to the indefatigable attention that attorney James Culp has paid to Matthew Brown’s case, the C.I.D. agreed to a meeting to hear him out. The original files were brought in for the occasion. They included crime-scene photographs that had previously been kept under wraps. The meeting took place over five hours on the afternoon of April 12 at Hunter Army Airfield, in Savannah, Georgia. The C.I.D. was represented by two agents and a lawyer. Culp was joined by experts from Visual Evidence, who were teleconferenced in from their crime-scene reconstruction in Ohio.
The meeting did not go well. Culp felt that the senior C.I.D. agent adopted a patronizing tone, lecturing him on the messiness of perceptions and the unreliability of eyewitnesses. For every question Culp raised, the agent offered a dismissive answer. He did, however, confirm that the C.I.D. had failed to conduct a quality-assurance audit of the investigation, rendering its process and findings even more suspect. What’s more, the new crime-scene photographs shared by the C.I.D. revealed that the original investigators had grossly miscalculated the dimensions of the elevated table in the Gun Tower, overstating its depth by 18 inches. This meant that Brown had been sitting 18 inches forward of the position that Visual Evidence had been working with. When the company’s technicians rearranged the mockup in Ohio to reflect the new information, they found that Brown’s entry and exit wounds now lined up precisely with the splintered hole in the window.
The C.I.D. promised to get back to Culp once a decision had been made on the merits of his position, but six weeks passed in silence. Then last May, one day after being contacted by VANITY FAIR, the C.I.D. called Sandra Evans and informed her that the investigation was being reopened. At first glance the news was heartening. But Culp was wary. After decades of experience with the C.I.D., he suspected that the investigation might be a ploy meant to deflect criticism and justify the original finding of suicide. In fact, the C.I.D. closed the re-investigation after only four weeks. It declined to discuss whom it had interviewed, or what it had found, saying only that Brown’s mother was free to request the files under the Freedom of Information Act. Those files will, of course, be redacted.
VIII. THE MISSING STATEMENT
In response to 40 written questions that I had submitted, the C.I.D. acknowledged that it had not offered immunity to any witnesses during the re-investigation, nor administered any polygraph tests. Its reason was circular: none of the witnesses, it said, was “suspected of a crime.” It reported that the investigators had concluded that the original finding of suicide was correct. It said that Sandra Evans never told them that her son feared for his life—only that he was being pressured to transport drugs to the base. It defended the original investigation with a string of evasions and patently false assertions. It insisted that Visual Evidence had determined that the bullet’s trajectory was consistent with a suicide, when the opposite was true, and claimed that Torres’s original photographs of the crime scene had included the hole in the Plexiglas window, when they had not. It said that the hole had been there “prior to this incident,” and was used by soldiers “as a finger hole to open and close the window,” but provided no evidence for that conclusion. Then, citing privacy requirements, the C.I.D. refused to answer the last 24 of my questions, all of which pertained to its failure to follow up on the contradictions and omissions in the statements provided by Torres, Jackson, Cianfrocco, and Flannery. It signed off with: “None of the questions you presented would change the final determination of suicide in this investigation. If new credible information is found or presented, CID stands ready to do whatever is needed to pursue that credible information.”
This was boilerplate, the same language that the C.I.D. has used for years to brush off the inquiries of bereaved families and agency critics. Most of these cases have subsided into obscurity, leaving the families exhausted and alone. One, however, remains widely known. In 2005, LaVena Johnson, a 19-year-old private first class, died of a gunshot to the head on a base in Iraq. Johnson’s death was found to be a suicide. After her father saw her body, however, he questioned the finding. She was right-handed, but the entry wound was on the left side of her head; she had a black eye, a broken nose, and teeth that had been shoved in; most disturbingly, her vagina had been severely burned with chemicals. Johnson’s father was a Ph.D., who had worked for the army for decades. He began a vigorous campaign to gain full access to the files, and to persuade the C.I.D. to reopen the investigation.
The C.I.D. obstructed him at every step along the way. Johnson sought help from his congressman, William Lacy Clay, who in an open session of the House Oversight Committee dressed down the C.I.D. commander, Brigadier General Rodney Johnson. Clay was irate. “Dr.~and Mrs.~Johnson have been trying to get to the truth about what happened to their daughter,” he said. “Unfortunately, they have been met by a wall of disrespect, evasion, and failure, and a failure to provide them with the answers that the parents of any fallen soldiers deserve.” The general answered that he was not aware of the Freedom of Information request filed by the Johnsons, but that any such request would be handled appropriately in due time. The same general commanded the C.I.D. three years later, when Matthew Brown died. Today, more than 13 years after LaVena Johnson’s death, her parents’ push for a reopened investigation has led to nothing.
By an odd coincidence, soon after the re-investigation into Matthew Brown’s death was closed, Culp received a copy of the missing statement by Michael Merritt, in which he testified that Torres had known about Brown’s suicide before he was notified of it in the chow hall. Merritt has left the army and lives in Florida. Culp got through to him easily by phone and told him that the re-investigation had come and gone. This was news to Merritt, who said that no one from the C.I.D. had contacted him. If they had, they would have learned what Merritt volunteered to Culp: that he had kept a daily diary in Afghanistan, that he has that diary still, and that it contains notes expressing confusion about certain aspects of Brown’s death.
According to Merritt, Jackson ordered him to stand guard at the base of the Gun Tower around 7:45 A.M. He was present when Brown’s body was removed, and was still there when Torres and Jackson returned around 12:15 P.M. and entered the tower alone. Merritt thought their visit was odd, and wondered what the purpose was. They were still inside 45 minutes later, when Merritt was relieved—by Cianfrocco and Flannery. In his official statement, Jackson had said that he and Torres had been inside the guard tower for 15 minutes. Now we have Merritt recalling that the visit was at least three times longer than that. It is hard to know what to make of this. But the C.I.D. made nothing of it at all, because it never bothered to ask. Its failure to contact Merritt earlier this year proves that nothing has changed. The re-investigation was as shoddy and incomplete as the original inquiry.
Soldiers who die in combat zones deserve, at the very least, a competent investigation into the causes of their deaths. But given the insularity of the military, it seems unlikely that the C.I.D. will suddenly decide to reform itself. In theory the F.B.I. could step in and open investigations on behalf of deceased soldiers into violations of their civil rights, as it often does when local authorities fail to adequately pursue justice in civilian deaths. To do so, however, it would first need its coroner to raise the possibility of an incorrect finding—and its coroner is the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
The warrior creed is said to be “Leave no soldier behind,” and combat commanders generally strive to live up to that. But the army is large and bureaucratic, and Matthew Brown, like an unexamined number of other soldiers, has been abandoned. He may have killed himself. He may have been murdered. Short of accepting the C.I.D.’s authority, there is no way to know. And because of that, his fate is a national disgrace.
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