Plea deal gets soldier 15 months after he killed comrade in ‘inexcusable’ error

Tacoma News TribuneMay 1, 2013 

Somehow the punishment doesn’t feel like enough for the fellow soldier who took their son’s life.

What’s 15 months in jail compared to a lifetime without Neil Turner?

Leland Turner and Charlotte Cox-Turner of Tacoma are weighing that question now that they’ve returned from a court-martial in Texas where a soldier pleaded guilty to killing their son.

Spc. Francisco Perez accidentally triggered a shoulder-fired rocket launcher at Pfc. Neil Turner inside the walls of their headquarters in Afghanistan last year. The explosive pierced Turner’s chest but did not explode.

“I’ll never understand what was going through (Perez’s) brain,” Cox-Turner said in an interview with The News Tribune on Tuesday.

Turner, 21, was the oldest of four brothers and a Lincoln High School graduate. He was serving on his first combat deployment with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas.

Perez’s carelessness appeared so blatant that an Army judge at Fort Bliss wanted to sentence him Friday to 31 months in jail – near the high end of the maximum penalty for negligent homicide under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Perez, however, had a plea agreement that capped his sentence at 15 months.

The judge made another concession for Perez’s family, electing to continue paying the soldier his salary so his wife and children will have some support during his confinement.

Neil Turner’s parents saw only the closing arguments and sentencing discussion for Perez last week.

“My attitude is, God’s in control. He knows Francisco’s heart,” Cox-Turner said Tuesday.

Prosecutors kept the rocket that killed Turner, using it as a courtroom prop. It jarred his mother throughout the day’s proceedings.

“I kept thinking, that’s all we have left of Neil,” Cox-Turner said.

The plea agreement ends the criminal phase of a saga that began for the Turners on Jan. 11, 2012, when they were wrongly told their son died in a training accident at his forward base in Afghanistan’s Logar Province.

The truth of his death, and the details of it, came out over a period of months.

Turner was killed when Perez pulled the trigger on a loaded light anti-tank weapon inside his company headquarters.

Soldiers said the weight of the rocket launcher alone should have conveyed to Perez that the weapon was loaded, witnesses said in written statements to investigators.

“User error is inexcusable,” a sergeant wrote in an investigation presented to the Turners last summer. They let a News Tribune reporter see the document on Tuesday.

The rocket tore through Turner’s abdomen and lodged in a cement wall. Turner was conscious for several minutes after Perez fired it.

“We thought we were under attack,” said Matt Perrigo, 29, who served with Turner as a sergeant last year. He has since left the Army and is spending time with the Turners in Tacoma.

Perrigo was on the other side of the wall, giving his company commander a haircut, when Perez fired the launcher.

An Army investigator found that soldiers serving with Perez repeatedly chastised him for carelessness with weapons. He received two reprimands on the day of the killing alone.

Perez was known to point his rifle at others. On the day of Turner’s death, a sergeant caught Perez aiming a training model of the rocket launcher up a staircase. Soldiers are taught to aim a weapon at a person only when they intend to use lethal force.

“I told him he needed to get his (expletive) together and that he was a team leader and didn’t need to be playing (expletive) games with weapons,” the sergeant told the investigator.

Furthermore, the investigator found that Perez was lax in his assignment that day. He was charged with putting away weapons and separating live ones from unusable ones.

For some reason, expended light anti-tank weapons used for training were mixed with live ones, the investigator found.

Turner approached Perez about 8:30 on the night of his death and asked Perez how to shoot the launcher.

Perez walked Turner through the steps of preparing the weapon for a shot: Remove the safety caps, extend the firing tube, pull the safety pin.

“Pull the trigger,” Perez told Turner.

Turner would not pretend to fire the weapon. He put it down on a table.

Perez picked it up and did what Turner would not. He pulled the trigger.

Soldiers who were there still can’t understand how Perez could have shot the weapon. They regret not peering into the weapons room to check up on Perez to make sure he was storing weapons properly.

“Any one of us could have stopped it. We just don’t know why none of us did,” Perrigo said.

The Turners are considering other actions they can take to hold the Army accountable for the lapses that contributed to their son’s death.

“I feel like I owe it to Neil,” Cox-Turner said.

Instead of a plea deal, they would have preferred to see a full court-martial with witnesses. Leland Turner noted that could have resulted in a tougher punishment for Perez; the top penalty for the crime is 36 months.

Perez will be dishonorably discharged from the Army after serving his sentence.

The family appreciates the warmth of Perrigo and other soldiers who have reached out to them, giving them an extended family they never expected.

Sometimes Cox-Turner thinks she learned too much about her son’s death. She has nightmares about it.

“It kills me,” she said. “As a parent, I would take (the rocket) a thousand times for Neil not to have to go through that.”

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