Warrior on Trial: A Kilo 3/1 Marine Faces Criminal-Homicide Charges 

Before Haditha: Jose Nazario came home from Iraq a hero for valor in the Battle of Fallujah. Now they're calling some of his actions criminal.

Wednesday, Feb 13 2008

A CALL CAME OVER RIVERSIDE police officer Jose Nazario's radio toward the end of the graveyard shift on August 7 of last year. The night had been quiet: a shoplifter picked up at Best Buy, a drunk in front of Starbucks with a felony warrant, a few traffic stops — typical activity in this city of just over a quarter-million people. Nazario, a trim 27-year-old former Marine, raised in New York City's Spanish Harlem, just two years out of the police academy, was three weeks from completing his probation period with the Riverside Police Department. Now his supervisor was asking him to return to the station to fill out an evaluation form.

Police work was a new beginning for Nazario. Through most of his adult life he'd only known the Marine Corps. At 17, he ventured to a recruiting station on Staten Island, spoke with a Marine on duty, and asked his mother to sign a waiver allowing him to enlist as a minor. Nazario was her only son; she'd raised him alone and now she was letting him go. With a mixture of pride and fear, she put her name to the page.

"I thought I was a pretty tough kid," Nazario recalls. He chose the Marines because it was "the toughest, most respectable" branch of the armed forces. In his school years he spent summers in upstate New York, a Fresh Air Fund camper from the city. He loved the outdoors, but the neighborhoods in which he grew up offered little in the way of nature. Life on the streets never attracted him. He always gravitated toward positive role models. The Marines represented a chance to leave the city behind. He would travel the world — Japan, Europe; he'd experience things nobody in his family ever had. If needed, he'd go to war.

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY WALT GORECKI
  • Illustration by Walt Gorecki

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Sergeant Jose Nazario returned from Iraq in January 2005, pulling into the Camp Pendleton parking lot assigned to 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, or 3/1. This had been the exact spot where he'd left his wife 10 months before, holding her silently for half an hour in the dawn darkness before kissing her goodbye. Upon their return, the Marines from 3/1's Kilo Company had rolled past the crowds and bands lining their route into Oceanside. Jose Nazario climbed off the bus and searched through the sea of families to find his wife. She was there alone, waiting for him.

The Marines of Kilo 3/1 arrived home in glory. They had led the main assault on Fallujah and suffered an inordinate amount of the battle's casualties — 23 Marines killed and 307 wounded. When Kilo Company convened in February 2005 for an awards ceremony, Nazario felt a sense of accomplishment like none other in his life. He'd given the Marine Corps eight years; the Corps had given him a new identity: as an infantryman, a scout sniper and, finally, leader of Kilo Company's 3rd Squad (3rd Platoon), taking his Marines into some of the fiercest combat since the Vietnam War. In Fallujah, he'd witnessed the killing of one of his men. But he'd saved another's life. For that, he'd been decorated for valor.

The war had ended for Jose Nazario. "I'd pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do," he says. He decided he'd leave the Marines after his enlistment came to an end, become a police officer and start a family. Soon after he entered the police academy, his wife became pregnant with their first child, a son. Life was coming together. "I wanted the wife, the kid, the white house, the picket fence," he says.

That August 7 morning, Nazario stepped out of his cruiser and followed his supervisor into a sergeant's room at the Riverside Police Department. On a table sat a piece of paper, what Nazario thought was a six-month-evaluation form. His supervisor directed him to sign it. As Nazario leaned in to read the paper, hands seized his arms from behind. Another set of hands removed the 40-caliber Glock from his service belt and wrapped handcuffs around his wrists. Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service placed him under arrest.

The criminal complaint read, plainly: "On or about November 9, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq, defendant Jose Luis Nazario Jr., in heat of passion caused by adequate provocation, unlawfully and intentionally killed two unarmed male human beings, without malice."

NOVEMBER 9, 2004. FALLUJAH, IRAQ. Operation Phantom Fury. Someone has been shooting at 3rd Squad from a house along a residential Fallujah street, which battle planners have renamed Phase Line Henry. Sergeant Jose Nazario's men return fire. After some time, the weapons go quiet. They've been taking fire all day. An hour or two earlier, a bullet struck Lance Corporal Juan Segura. He died soon after, and the fight quickly became real for the Marines in Kilo 3/1. Right now they don't have time to mourn Segura; they are the lead force of the assault, making their way on foot to the center of this city, home to nearly a half-million people before the American assaults, the first in April 2004. They move toward the house, watching the rooftops and windows for snipers.

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