An Army witness who says he stumbled onto a fellow soldier killing a U.S. superior at their patrol base in Iraq testified Monday he thought he was running toward nighttime enemy fire as he responded to gunshots — until he heard the shooter shout “I’ll kill you” in English and saw his face illuminated by his flashing rifle.
Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich, 41, of Minneapolis, faces a possible death sentence if a military jury of 12 soldiers convicts him of premeditated murder in the September 2008 slayings of his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson of Pensacola, Fla., and a fellow team leader, Sgt. Wesley Durbin of Dallas, Texas.
A member of their Georgia-based infantry unit, Sgt. 1st Class John Dresel, testified at Bozicevich’s court-martial Monday that he heard gunshots in the middle of the night and grabbed his rifle, fearing insurgents were attacking the small U.S.-Iraqi military base south of Baghdad.
“Then I heard a soldier yelling, ‘(Expletive), I’m going to kill you!’” Dresel testified Monday.
The witness said he came within a few feet of a fellow U.S. soldier — who turned out to be 24-year-old Dawson — bleeding and face-down on the ground. He said Dawson was trying to push himself back up while pleading in a desperate voice: “Please stop! Why? Why?”
He said he then heard footsteps and saw another man run up and stop just a few feet from Dawson before aiming his rifle at the wounded man and pulling the trigger.
“He stopped about three or four feet off the body and he fired two shots,” Dresel said. “I didn’t know it was Sgt. Bozicevich until I saw the muzzle flash of his rifle.”
Dawson, 26, lay dying as Dresel wrestled Bozicevich to the ground, with help from other U.S. soldiers rushing to the scene.
Durbin’s dead body was found soon thereafter inside the base’s communication station, which had bullet holes punched through the door. Prosecutors say Bozicevich fired 27 times at the slain soldiers, hitting each of them multiple times. Authorities say Bozicevich became enraged after the two had critiqued him earlier for poor performance.
The troops’ platoon sergeant, 1st Sgt. Xaver Perdue, testified Monday that he found Durbin in a corner of the small building with his hands drawn up to cover his face. Perdue said he saw the soldier take his last breath.
When he exited the building, Perdue said, he walked to where Bozicevich was being held on the ground by soldiers and pressed the barrel of his rifle against Bozicevich’s head.
“Shoot me. Kill me,” Bozicevich said, according to Perdue.
Perdue said he flipped off his rifle’s safety catch as he told Bozicevich: “I’m going to give you exactly what you want.”
The platoon sergeant said the only thing that kept him from pulling the trigger was Dresel urging him to think about his own wife and children. That, Perdue said, persuaded him to drop his rifle.
After 14 days of testimony in the trial, Dresel is the first witness to say he clearly saw Bozicevich shoot one of the slain men. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, sought to erode his credibility.
Initially, Dresel agreed with one of Bozicevich’s attorneys, Maj. Amilcar Hernandez, that his written statement submitted to military investigators a day after the shootings never mentioned anyone shouting “I’m going to kill you!” However, prosecutors later recalled Dresel to the witness stand to point out the statement did refer to Bozicevich using that phrase.
He also noted that Dresel testified at a pretrial hearing in April 2009 that he saw Bozicevich shoot Dawson in the left-front region of his chest.
On Monday, Dresel said he saw Dawson lying face-down when Bozicevich stood over him and fired. He avoided saying where the bullets struck the soldier.
“Your testimony today is you just saw him shoot?” Hernandez said.
“Sir, I am not saying where the rounds went,” Dresel replied.
The soldiers all belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division, which has deployed four times to Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Other members of the unit testified previously that the shooting erupted after Dawson and Durbin had criticized Bozicevich for committing blunders while leading several soldiers on a 3-mile foot patrol. They said Bozicevich had led his team down a wrong path and later mistakenly left a soldier behind as they began to return to base.
Bozicevich’s attorneys haven’t given many clues to his defense — they waived making an opening statement when his trial began April 20, opting to wait until after prosecutors rest their case.
The slayings occurred while Bozicevich was in Iraq on his second combat tour in three years on active duty. He previously had served 15 years in the Army Reserve in Minnesota.