By Mollie Miller
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD A 4th Infantry Division soldier who is accused of killing a detainee during a raid in Iraq last year pleaded not guilty to murder and obstruction of justice charges Tuesday.
Staff Sgt. Shane Werst, 32, currently assigned to the divisions Special Troops Battalion, has been charged in connection with a Jan. 3, 2004, incident during which Naser Ismail was killed while Wersts unit conducted house-to-house searches in Balad, Iraq.
Prosecutors have said Werst and another soldier from his unit took Ismail to an isolated spot in one of the houses, beat him, shot him, and then planted a gun on him to make the killing look like self-defense.
Wersts pleas, which were entered by his civilian attorney, David Sheldon, during a pretrial hearing held at Fort Hoods Williams Justice Center, may have come as somewhat of a surprise to prosecutors who had reached a plea agreement with Werst March 8.
Under the original plea agreement, Werst was scheduled to be sentenced May 23. Under the new schedule, pretrial motions will be discussed May 16 and the trial will begin May 23.
The pretrial motions to be discussed May 16 will include an unlawful pretrial restraint motion. Military judge Col. Theodore Dixon requested that the as-yet-unfiled motion be filed by Friday.
Werst was arrested Nov. 20 and brought to Fort Hood from Lansing, Mich. Upon arriving at Fort Hood, he was confined at the Bell County Jail. Werst was released from the jail Nov. 30 following a hearing and has since been confined to Fort Hood.
Fourth Infantry commander Maj. Gen. James Thurman referred Werst to trial by general court-martial Feb. 23 following an Article 32 investigation conducted by Maj. Kim Bevin.
During the Article 32 investigation hearing Jan. 21, prosecutors said the death of a 4th Infantry company commander earlier in the week may have been a factor in the Jan. 3, 2004, incident.
Lead prosecutor Capt. Steve Fuller said that on Jan. 2, Capt. Eric Paliwoda, a company commander with the 4th Engineer Battalion, was killed when a mortar round hit the base where he was assigned. That evening, house-to-house searches were initiated to locate those responsible for the attack, and Ismail was identified as a possible target.
Criminal Investigation Division Special Agent Matthew Elliott, the cases lead investigator, testified that a written statement by Pfc. Nathan Stewart, a member of Wersts squad, indicated that during these Jan. 3 raids, Ismail was located in one of the houses and moved to an isolated area by him and Werst. Once the two men had the detainee alone, Stewart claimed that Werst said to him, We are going to kill this (expletive).
Elliott said Stewarts statement went on to say that he and Werst proceeded to punch and beat Ismail. Werst then told Stewart to get the Iraqi to his feet. As he stepped away from Ismail, Stewart claims Werst fired at the Iraqi several times. When Ismail fell to the ground, Stewart claims Werst fired on him again because he was still breathing.
Once the Iraqi was on the ground, Stewarts statement said Werst pulled a 9mm handgun out, fired a few rounds and planted it on the dead man to make the shooting look like a case of self-defense.
If convicted of both offenses with which he has been charged, Werst will face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment without chance of parole, reduction in rank to E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and dishonorable discharge.
Werst has elected to be tried by a military jury rather than by judge alone.
Contact Mollie Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org