The two soldiers approached the figure making its way toward Village Stability Platform Belambay in the early morning darkness of March 11.
The man donned what appeared to be a tan shirt, a blue cape or blanket tied around his neck and pants that were covered in blood.
“You (expletive) kidding me?” the man shouted at one of the soldiers as they approached. “I trusted you with my life. Did you rat me out?”
The man who had been unaccounted for that morning at the base – Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales – complied with the soldiers’ orders to put down his weapons, of which he was carrying many. Later, the Lake Tapps man and Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, sounded less angry and more remorseful and confused.
“I thought I was doing the right thing,” Bales allegedly repeated while in custody.
Earlier in the night, he told one of the same soldiers who was approaching him that moment an admission so chilling that the soldier didn’t believe it:
“I just shot some people.”
This testimony from five witnesses – soldiers who were with Bales before, during and after his alleged nighttime massacre - provided the most detailed account of what allegedly occurred that night during the pre-trial portion of Bales’ Article 32 hearing Monday. It was the first day of what’s expected to be a two-week trial.
Bales faces numerous charges, or specifications, including 16 counts of premeditated murder and wounding another six people. He’s also accused of possessing and using steroids.
On Monday, prosecutors revealed that 11 of those murder counts consist of an entire family – mostly women and girls – whom Bales allegedly shot and killed, piled together and lit on fire.
Throughout the day, Bales, who was wearing the standard-issue camouflage uniform, sat back in his chair. He didn’t speak, uttering only “Sir, yes sir” when asked by the military judge if he understood the charges and his rights. His wife, Karilyn, sat in the benches behind her husband.
The team trying to prosecute Bales painted a picture of a man who - struggling with family problems and angry over an IED explosion a week prior - carried out a cold, calculated shooting spree with no remorse.
His defense team countered by painting the portrait of a man who had been deployed multiple times and was struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental problems.
Early in the day, prosecutors did make one thing clear: They will seek the death penalty for Bales.
“Man on Fire”
The soldiers who testified offered several new details of what Bales was allegedly doing that night – a night that started with he and two other soldiers sneaking swigs of alcohol in their room.
Cpl. David Godwin testified that he was with Bales and Sgt. Jason McLaughlin, passing around a Dasani Water bottle that was about a third full of a mix of Jack Daniels whiskey and soda.
They watched the movie, “Man of Fire,” which depicts a man who seeks violent justice. They also chatted about an IED explosion that left one of the members of their patrol with a badly injured leg.
Bales talked about how no one was doing anything about it, Godwin said. They weren’t intoxicated, just a little buzzed.
Around 11 p.m., Godwin and Bales walked out of the room, back to their commons and then to their rooms.
Three hours later, a soldier was knocking on Godwin’s door with news that Bales was missing.
“Shot up some people”
The surveillance footage shown in the courtroom Monday shows a figure leaving the base, most likely from a south gate and going unnoticed by an Afghan guard.
What happened after that, according to prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse, was one of the worst scenes of the war in Afghanistan.
Bales allegedly walked 600 meters north to an Afghan village that had no running water or electricity, entered a mud-wall compound and shot and killed multiple Afghan villagers.
Bales then walked backed to VSP Belambay, according to prosecutors, and barged in on the room of McLaughlin.
Bales was talking about how he had just come from a village and had just “shot up some people,” according to McLaughlin.
Bales then said something that made no sense to him: Smell my weapon.
“His weapon was right in my face,” McLaughlin recounted for the court.
The accused told the soldier that he had been to one village, and he was going to another.
Then, before Bales left, he grabbed the other soldier and said, “Take care of my kids.”
McLaughlin, sleepy and a little disoriented, said it sounded so “ridiculously out of the realm” of possibility that he didn’t believe it.
Two hours later, McLaughlin awoke to news that there was gunfire in a nearby village.
“That’s when I realized what Sgt. Bales had said to me,” he said.
“It’s really bad”
The figure, again captured on VSP Belambay’s surveillance cameras, could be seen walking, then lying on its stomach, then crawling on the ground.
He stood up again and was approached by two soldiers. It was Godwin and McLaughlin, the same two soldiers whom Bales was drinking and watching movies with just hours before.
Only this time, Bales was carrying a rifle, a pistol and grenade launcher, according to their testimony. His face and clothes, they testified, was covered with dirt and blood – blood that matches the DNA of the one of the women killed in the massacre, prosecutors say.
The video shows the figure dropping his weapons and surrendering to the two soldiers.
After they took Bales back to the base, and as they waited for his guarded transportation, he allegedly described the night’s events like this:
“It’s bad. It’s bad. It’s really bad.”