Soldier of Misfortune
Claims of a cover-up in the killing of a metro Detroit man in Iraq
Published: June 6, 2012
"... At 8 years old he would ride his bike around and police kids and tell them when they were doing wrong and would help kids when they needed help. ... So you see not only did Justin make an impact on adults and children in other countries as an adult, but he also did it as a child himself. ... As Justin grew I knew he was going to make a difference in life ..."
Other letters describing Justin strike many of the same notes.
"Justin Pope was not only my cousin, but he was also my hero," wrote Sabrina Lividini. "We grew up together, and throughout our childhood, Justin always had a passion and desire to serve our county. ... Justin was truly the best of all of us, and we all looked up to him for striving to achieve (and achieving) things that we could never even think of doing."
"From as far back as I can remember," wrote another cousin, "he dreamed of being a Marine, serving his country. He was always trying to help people, make everyone's life better, even if it meant making his a little worse. Our family is not as strong without the positive, beautiful presence of my cousin Justin. He was an amazing person. The best I have ever known."
So the family was certain Justin hadn't killed himself, or that he'd been cleaning a loaded weapon that accidentally discharged.
They were right.
As federal prosecutor David Jaffe told the judge presiding over Palmer's case:
"From my understanding in speaking with the family ... members of DynCorp either telephoned or came in person to the family of Justin Pope to give their condolences, and they made statements about what happened. And some of the anguish that you hear, Your Honor, was that as it turns out, as a result of what we learned from the investigation, all of those statements were not true."
Things took an abrupt turn when Palmer showed up in Michigan for his friend's viewing. They weren't sure he'd be able to make it; Mrs. Boffo had informed them that Palmer had gone into convulsions after Justin was shot and had to be hospitalized, recalls Patricia Salser.
Kevin Pope, Justin's oldest brother, made handwritten notes as events unfolded. Among other things, he remarked about how Keho had shown up with paperwork for Ashley to sign. There were two insurance policies — one for $250,000 and other for $50,000 — that had to be processed.
"Mike [Kehoe] also said it would be probably two or three more days before we would have word on how he died."
That claim was made even though court records would reveal that State Department investigators, who were in the area working on another case, were on the scene within an hour.
The family claims that they learned from the State Department that the employees, before talking with investigators, gathered together privately to coordinate their stories.
One of the men present at the time of Justin's death, who is named in the lawsuit and spoke with Metro Times on condition that his name not be revealed, denies that the men gathered to coordinate their stories.
In any event, Palmer showed up in Michigan four days after the shooting to attend services for his friend. It was then that he confessed to Ashley that he was somehow involved, but that he had been too drunk at the time of the shooting to have a clear recollection of it. He did remember seeing someone else's hand on the gun.
According to Kevin Pope's contemporaneous notes, "Sunday the 8th Palmer was here in the Courtyard Marriott where I met him in the afternoon. I talked with Palmer alone in the hotel room. ... He said both of their hands were on the gun. He said he was convulsing after that. He said he thinks Justin only had one Corona. I think he made it sound like he had a lot more to drink. He did say there was another guy in the room."
Three days later Kevin wrote: "Palmer and Natalie came to Ashley's on Wednesday night the 11th around midnight. I asked Palmer how long Justin's blood was pumping after he was shot. Palmer answered that he didn't remember anything until he woke up several hours later. ... I told Palmer my brother loved him and I do too. I told him I forgive him if he's living with guilt and he told me it means a lot."
However, the stories being told to the family kept changing. They say now that it is difficult to keep track of all the versions of Justin's death that were presented to them by both Palmer and DynCorp officials. The scenario evolved from Pope being alone in his room to him being there with Palmer and "possibly" one other person to there being a room full of people.
It wasn't until Palmer, fired from DynCorp because of the killing, was back in the United States, in Gulfport, Miss., that investigators were able to extract a confession from him. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of eight years. Under the original plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to request that Palmer serve no prison time whatsoever. Five years of supervised probation would be his penalty.
Pope's family reacted with shock. "It felt like a kick to the gut," Bill Salser says. The family objected to the sentence, saying it was too lenient. The judge eventually agreed and sentenced Palmer to three years. Before sentencing, Jaffe, the prosecutor, read into the record what he says the government would be able to prove if the case were to go to trial.
It is a soliloquy that nauseates the family.
What follows is an edited version of what was presented to the court:
The defendant and Pope were close friends who had served together in the U.S. Marine Corps during the battle of Fallujah back in Iraq in 2005. Both had been trained as snipers and were well versed in firearms, including their function and procedures for safely handling weapons.
The evidence would also show that in the late evening hours of March 4th and continuing into the early hours of March 5th of 2009, an informal party or get-together was taking place at Justin Pope's embassy-provided residence inside the State Department embassy compound in Erbil. Pope, the defendant, and others had been escorting the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq during the day.
There were approximately eight to ten contractors in this small bedroom. Most had consumed alcohol. Indeed, the defendant had drank two bottles of wine, several beers, and some whiskey by himself before and during the party. The defendant himself believed that he was so drunk that he would not have been able to legally operate a motor vehicle. Pope was not drunk that night, and some people present believed he may have had one beer, but a toxicology report reflected there was no alcohol present in Pope's system at the time of his death.
During the party, Justin Pope and the defendant had engaged in some playful and friendly wrestling on Pope's bed. After that wrestling had concluded, the evidence would show that the defendant [Palmer] went to a bed at the opposite end of the room and stood there while Pope went to his desk. From his desk, Pope retrieved his 9-millimeter Glock 19 handgun. The evidence would show that Pope then went over to the bed where the defendant was standing. Pope pulled back the slide of his Glock handgun at least once, expelling an unfired round of ammunition. The defendant never saw Pope removing the magazine from the weapon, and the action, in the absence of seeing the magazine removed, made it clear that the gun was in fact loaded.
Pope then began to dance on the bed with the defendant while Pope was waiving the gun around. Justin Pope, in a joking manner, pointed the gun at the defendant's head. So the evidence that the government would have collected would show that this was consistent with a game that is sometimes played with a semiautomatic handgun among Marines, a game sometimes referred to as a "Trust Me" game, where a loaded handgun is pointed at a friend and the friend is expected to trust the possessor of the weapon not to shoot him.
After that pointing of the weapon at the defendant, the defendant and Pope began wrestling, although not wrestling for possession of the gun, but friendly wrestling. After that wrestling concluded, the defendant at some point took the firearm from Pope. Then, as Pope had done, the defendant at some point took the firearm from Pope. Then, as Pope had done, the defendant pointed the gun at Justin Pope's head. Witnesses are prepared to testify that Pope then said, in substance and in part, either 'Do it' or 'Pull the trigger' or something in that manner.
The defendant, still extremely intoxicated, pulled the trigger of the gun without checking to see whether the gun was loaded. The gun discharged a bullet, and the bullet struck Justin Pope in the head. Justin Pope collapsed on the bed. Although others in the room immediately provided medical assistance and attention and Justin Pope remained alive for a short period of time, he died soon after without regaining consciousness.
Pope's family members say the official version of Justin's death is as far-fetched as the stories that he'd possibly killed himself, or that his gun had accidentally misfired while being cleaned.
Which is why, after their first lawsuit had been dismissed (which they are appealing, acting as their own lawyers), they found new attorneys and are trying to get back in court again. Because this, in essence, is what they are being asked to accept: that a stone-cold sober Justin Pope — a guy who had never been anything less than intense about handling firearms safely — danced around waving a loaded pistol, and then "playfully" wrestled with another man while holding the weapon. And then, the most incredible part: that he would take that gun, knowing it was loaded, and hand the weapon to a guy wasted on alcohol and, with that gun maybe three feet from his face say, "Go ahead, pull the trigger."
"There is no way any of us would ever believe Justin would do anything like that," says his mother, Patricia Salser. "Anyone who knows him wouldn't believe it.
Aside from the family's disbelief based on Justin's character, there is an autopsy — conducted by the Armed Forces Institute of pathology in Rockville, Md. — that appears to call into doubt that official version of events.
As part of the first lawsuit, noted forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz reviewed the autopsy report and a CD containing photographs of the body. In a sworn affidavit, Spitz reported that "in addition to the injuries directly associated with the gunshot wound, Justin suffered bruising in the upper eyelid, bridge of his nose, inside of his upper lip, outside of his left arm and the back side of his right hand as well as two fractured teeth."
That raises the possibility that the "playful wrestling" described by the prosecution may really have been a fight.
Also of concern to the family is a conversation they say took place with State Department investigator Scott Banker and prosecutor David Jaffe at the U.S. federal building in Detroit just before the official version of events was presented to the court in Mississippi.
According to Patricia Salser, the family was told in that meeting that the truth of what happened might never be known because the DynCorp employees present when the shooting occurred either weren't talking or were providing conflicting stories.
If the government wasn't sure what the truth really was, why didn't they press on with the investigation? The family says they have never been given an answer to that question.
Greg Gulizzi, 34, served in the Marines with Pope and Palmer. In a phone interview with Metro Times, he says he's familiar with the "trust me" game, and that he doesn't believe Pope would ever willingly engage in it. He says "fanatic" is not too strong a word to use when describing his friend's attitude toward gun safety.
He says that as both a Marine and a person, Pope was looked up to by the people he fought alongside. He too says the story that Pope "wrestled with a drunk guy with a loaded gun" is ludicrous.
However, the fact that Palmer was involved in dangerous gunplay came as no surprise.
Gulizzi also recalls having a conversation with Pope when they were deployed in Iraq. Pope told him that he knew of some snipers who had played the "trust me" game, and that he was astonished anyone would be so reckless. "What if something happened?" Gulizzi recalls Pope saying. Then, he added, "You know, Palmer was doing it too."
Then he tries to put things into some perspective:
"You have to remember, we didn't sign up to join the Marines when things were pleasant. In some ways we lived like there was no tomorrow because it really could be that there would be no tomorrow. When we were in Iraq, guys got sniped. We lost a lot of friends. For seven months, we walked around a place where you never knew when you might get sniped at."
Nothing in his experience with Pope, however, would lead him to believe the official version of his friend's death.
"That just doesn't make any sense, man."
Unlike Gulizzi — and some of the military experts we talked with — the former DynCorp employee who was present at Justin's death, says he never heard of the "trust me" game. He says that despite the fact that concerns about the "game" were reported in publications such as the Marine Corps Times. This same person also still insists that Pope had drank beer the night he died — despite autopsy findings that there was zero alcohol in his system.
"People are trying to make sense of all this, but none of it makes any sense," he says.
The fact that it makes no sense is what has the family searching for a more plausible explanation.
One possibility, says Patricia Salser, is that her son had a problem with something that had occurred among members of the security detail, or was concerned about something improper involving DynCorp.
She says that, shortly before his death, Justin told her he was considering asking for a transfer to a new assignment in Pakistan, even though that job would pay less than the one in Iraq. She says too that he seemed troubled by something on his last visit home a few weeks before he died.
One thing that's certain, say friends and family, is that Justin was a "stand-up" guy, the kind of man who refused to turn a blind eye to problems.
A former Marine who served with Pope recalls two incidents that occurred when both men were in uniform.
In one case, in the Iraqi city of Fallujah — the site of intense fighting at one point during the war — a patrol being led by Pope found a young disabled boy being mistreated by his father. That boy, says Alex Corti, was chained to a wall and forced to wallow in his own feces.
"Pope went upstairs, found the father, and through a translator told the guy he'd kill him if he continued treating the boy that way," recalls Corti, who lives in Ohio. "He wasn't serious about that. He was just trying to scare the guy. And it worked.
"After that, whenever we were on patrol in that same area, Justin would have us go by that house and make sure everything was OK with that kid."
Another story told by Corti also has its roots in Fallujah, where one member of Pope's unit accidentally shot a child. "It was what they call collateral damage," Corti says.
When they were back stateside, Pope heard the guy bragging about how he'd made a kill in Iraq. Incensed, Pope laid into the guy, hitting him several times.
"It took about four guys to pull Justin off of him," recalls Corti.
As for Pope's bravery and ability to keep a cool head in dangerous situations, there's no question. Among the chestful of ribbons and medals adorning his Marine uniform is an "achievement metal" earned when a sniper wounded one of the members of a patrol he led. According to the citation he received, he put himself in harm's way, providing triage to the wounded man while directing others to return fire.
Corti also says that it was always Pope who helped keep people in line, keeping them focused on the fact that they were there to help the people of Iraq, and not to lose sight of that.
Just as the family and friends wrote letters extolling the virtues of Justin Pope and asking the judge to not let the man who killed him off with just probation, friends wrote letters describing Kyle Palmer's many fine qualities.
Among them were letters from all three of the Boffos. Michael said that he thought of Kyle as a "son" and continued to do so even after his daughter broke off their engagement.
"Although the tragic events in Iraq in March 2009 shattered the lives of these two young people, and has sent them on separate paths, I still recall the goodness, and commitment that Kyle consistently showed for that time when he was part of our family."
Michael Boffo, no longer with DynCorp, is one of the employees named in the lawsuit. Metro Times was unable to reach him for comment. Also writing letters were two of the men present in the room when Palmer killed Pope. Those men also are defendants in the just-filed suit.
Others described Kyle as a "Christian with very high morals for life."
"Kyle is my hero," wrote his new fiancee, a registered nurse. "He did what others didn't want to do; he fought for our country. He is the reason why we are here today doing what we want to do or enjoy doing. For our freedom, we have Kyle to thank. He is a veteran."
"Kyle amazes me on a daily basis," she adds. "After everything he has been through, he is still stable, headstrong, dedicated, determined and motivated."
There is, however, another side to Palmer that isn't revealed in these letters. It is a side of him captured on a video camera while he was still working for DynCorp in Iraq. Kevin Pope found it on his brother's laptop computer when it was returned to the family after Justin's death.
(The members of the Pope family, it seems, have taken on different responsibilities as they continue what they consider to be a fight to clear Justin's name of the terrible tarnish the official version of his death has created. Kevin has been scouring the Internet for information. One of the things he's found is a video posted on YouTube showing yet another party taking place among DynCorp employees at their Ebril quarters. Kyle is in that video — which features some raucous beer-bonging — even though alcohol consumption was, officially anyway, strictly prohibited.)
The video found on Justin's computer was provided to the judge in Mississippi. It too is part of the court record. At the start of the five-minute recording, Palmer is clearly pictured. The cameraman sounds to be drunk, hiccupping frequently before putting the camera down before leaving the room because he has to "go pee."
The camera continues to roll, but the screen goes dark. What gets captured, however, is the audio, resulting in a sort of theater of the absurd.
Palmer is clearly wasted, and one of his co-workers is trying to assist him.
There are two voices, one of which Pope's family says is clearly Palmer's. It's not known who is trying to help him as he lays in bed, a trash can placed alongside in case he has to vomit.
"Stop touching me now," Palmer says.
"Why are you so fucked up?"
"I'll kill you now," Palmer says.
"I'm going to fuckin' fuck you up now."
It goes on in that vein for a few minutes, with Palmer telling the man who's trying to help him that he "smells like a nigger." The man starts jabbing him.
"Goddam it, quit hitting me in the ribs," Palmer yells.
"It'll be a lot worse if you keep that up," is the reply.
After a few more minutes someone else enters the room and you hear Palmer say, "Ah, shit, the boss man. We're fucked now."
"Just hit the can," says the new voice, apparently that of a supervisor.
"Leave me alone," Palmer says.
"It's happened to me more than once," the supervisor says, laughing.
And then, apparently referring to the assignment completed earlier, "Good fucking job tonight guys. Good fucking job."
He then notices the camera.
"Don't leave that on," he says.
"Oh, shit," says the other man.
And then it ends.
Also in the court file is a pair of letters of particular pertinence.
One is from someone writing on behalf of Palmer. His name is Cono Caranna, and he is a district attorney in Gulfport.
He talks about the differences between "today's war machine" and the military force deployed in 1967, when he served a year in Vietnam:
We were a group composed of draftees and volunteers. Most missions were accomplished by military units while today many are contracted out to civilian corporate entities.
I recall that many policies, procedures, special orders and standing orders tasked company commanders with close supervision of combat troops when our mission allowed us to stand down and have a brief time away from our duties. If the event involved alcohol, or access to it, all weapons were secured before the troops were allowed to participate. Apparently, the contractor responsible for the group [in] which this tragedy occurred did not have either the standards or supervision to prevent the terrible consequences.
In light of the failure of the contractor to take into account all the standards the military has employed for so many years, I can understand the sentencing recommendation made and supported by the investigator, the United States Department of Justice as well as the United States Attorney for the District.
The military authorities, as well as the Department of Veteran Affairs, has recognized the strain and impact specialized military training and combat experience have on groups such as Marine Corps Scout Snipers. Certainly such men who have returned to combat zones as civilian contractors are equally affected by such pressures. ... Please consider this old veteran's concern that the failure of a unit or group will fall disproportionately on Kyle Palmer.
The other letter is from Justin's paternal grandfather, William B. Pope. Like Caranna, he posits that Palmer is not the only one responsible:
Avoiding a trial has been the sole objective of DynCorp and they have changed their explanation of this tragedy several times. They continue to resist any testimony that might reveal the truth.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
> Email Curt Guyette