State News

Paratrooper: Dead N.C. soldier was punched, choked

Posted January 23, 2009 3:06 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— A soldier found dead last summer complained about the price of beer and got in a fight at a bar called the Ugly Stick before seven members of his own unit punched, choked and restrained him, a paratrooper testified at a hearing Friday.

Sgt. Mitchell Lafortune testified during an Article 32, similar to a civilian grand jury, for five of seven soldiers charged with involuntary manslaughter in Pfc. Luke Brown's death. The other two are scheduled to appear Feb. 27 and the division commander will decide whether to convene a formal trial, or court-martial.

Lafortune said he saw the soldiers "aggressively assault" Brown in a patch of woods after the group left a Fayetteville bar early July 20. When the men drove him back to the barracks on Fort Bragg, Lafortune said he thought Brown was dead because he was pale and his eyes were closed.

"I should have done something to make sure he was OK," said Lafortune, who has not been charged and testified that he did not participate in choking Brown. "I should have been smart enough to walk out of the woods and at least call Fayetteville (police). It's something I regret to this day."

Defense attorney Todd Connormon, who represents 24-year-old Spc. Charles B. DeLong, one of those charged, called the situation "a tragedy," and said the soldiers were trying to take care of a friend.

"I'm hoping this doesn't go to court," Connormon said. "I don't think it should."

Lafortune's testimony was the first public account of the night Brown died.

He and other soldiers arrived at the bar around 10 p.m. Lafortune said Brown, 27, an intelligence officer from Fredericksburg, Va., was drinking and socializing at the bar but seemed in a bad mood, complaining about the price of beer. Brown got into an argument with a soldier from another unit, grabbed the man's beer and drank it while they watched girls dance on a stage.

Lafortune said around 2 a.m. Brown became aggravated and wandered off into the woods near the bar.

When the group left, a soldier found Brown in a patch of woods behind the bar. Lafortune said he heard a commotion and saw Brown being choked and punched. He said the soldiers were trying to get Brown to pass out so they could move him.

“They were hitting him excessively, in my opinion,” Lafortune said.

Lafortune said he saw Spc. Joseph Misuraca, 22, hitting Brown “to the point of being tired. I remember him bragging how hard he hit him.” He said Sgt. Justin Boyle, 28, put Brown in a chokehold, and the other soldiers kicked and punched him.

The group carried Brown, who was more than 6 feet tall and weighed 250 pounds, to the edge of the woods. When he began to wake up, they kept him on the ground and bound his hands with a zip tie.

They put Brown in a vehicle and drove back to the barracks. Lafortune said he heard one of the other soldiers say, "You've got to breathe Brown, breathe."

They cut the zip ties off of his wrists and started CPR. Shortly after, an ambulance and military police arrived.

Navy Cmdr. Carol Solomon, a pathologist at the Washington-based Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, testified later Friday that choking a person to unconsciousness can cause a fatal brain injury. She said injuries on Brown's neck were consistent with choking.

"I believe their actions were involved in causing Pfc. Brown's death," she said of the accused.

Solomon had originally ruled the cause of Brown's death undetermined because she was concerned he may have had an enlarged heart. She testified she changed her opinion after determining his heart was normal.

The soldiers charged are DeLong, of Dade City, Fla.; Misuraca, of Harper Woods, Mich.; Boyle, of Rocky Point, N.Y.; Sgt. Christopher Mignocchi, 22, of Hollywood, Fla.; Sgt. Kyle G. Saltz, 25, of Richland, Wash.; Spc. Ryan Sullivan, 23, of Mount Laurel, N.J.; and Pfc. Andrey Udalov, 21, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The seven men are assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, which was Brown's unit. The involuntary manslaughter charges carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Some of the soldiers also face other charges.