By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Inside the house, the squad finds several adult males, each unarmed. A search of the rooms turns up AK-47 rifles with ammunition. Nazario then radios an unidentified Marine to report the capture of the prisoners. After a brief exchange, Nazario turns to his squad mates. He tells them that the voice on the other end has asked: "Are they dead yet?" To which Nazario responded, "Negative." Then, Nazario reports, the radioed voice gave him an order: "Make it happen."
"You know what has to be done," Nazario tells his men.
According to the affidavit, this is when the killing begins. Nazario leads one prisoner to a separate room, believed to be a kitchen. Two gunshots ring out. Two witnesses, both active-duty U.S. Marines whose names have been redacted from the affidavit, enter the room. Nazario stands over the prisoner, who is splayed flat on his back, a pool of blood circling his head. Nazario leaves the room and asks, "Who else wants to kill these guys? Because I don't want to do it all myself."
Nazario, according to one witness, then orders two members of his squad to each kill a prisoner. Nazario raises his rifle to the head of a second prisoner and pulls the trigger. Blood and brain matter splatter over the muzzle of Nazario's rifle and onto his boots. An unidentified squad member points his pistol at one of the remaining prisoners and fires. One prisoner remains.
"Yo, are you done yet? We have to go," Nazario tells another squad member, whose name is withheld. That Marine, according to the affidavit, shoots the last prisoner in the back of the head.
NAZARIO DENIES ANY OF THISever happened. We meet at the Riverside Division Federal Courthouse this past December, before a pretrial hearing. He stands in the back of the courtroom, almost at attention, watching as court officers lead in a half-dozen orange-jumpsuit-clad defendants facing charges in other cases. He wears a broad-shouldered black suit with a tiny American-flag pin fixed to the left lapel of his jacket, draped loosely over his lean, triangular build; his head is shaved bald and his stern expression occasionally breaks into a boyish smile.
Shortly before his court appearance, we sit down in a windowless conference room next to the courtroom. He's agreed to grant the first interview since his indictment to L.A. Weekly, though his lawyer, Emery Ledger, a criminal-defense attorney from Newport Beach, takes any discussion of the charges off the table.
"I thought it was a joke," Nazario says of his arrest. The consequences, however, were immediate. The Riverside Police Department fired him that day. Since he had several weeks remaining as a probationary officer, the department could not place him on paid suspension. With a stay-at-home wife and 2-year-old child, he immediately needed to find work. He looked for jobs everywhere: loss-prevention at Wal-Mart, security-guard positions, "almost anything I could find, to help pay the bills," he says. He'd fill out job applications, and when it came to the question of whether he had any criminal cases pending, he'd answer truthfully. He never received a callback.
Nazario left Riverside and moved his wife and child across country to a small town in upstate New York to be near family. He now stays home, caring for his son, the allegations against him a constant companion.
"It's nothing short of horrible," he says. "We can't pay any of our bills. We're relying on the kindness of strangers."
The family doesn't have health insurance, and until Nazario is tried, their future remains uncertain.
"I love my country. That's never going to change. It's just ...," he says, trailing off. "I haven't been found guilty of anything. I'm suffering. My family's suffering."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Four days after the actions on Phase Line Henry, Nazario and 3rd Squad are in a firefight in a second house in Fallujah. And this time, as the months and years pass, the firefight will be rewritten as a legend in the Marine Corps, a stage set for combat heroism in Fallujah, the Iraq war's largest battle.
NOVEMBER 14, 2004. BALAD AIR BASE, IRAQ. It is a Sunday. Not long after morning services. Two members of Nazario's squad, Ryan Weemer and Cory Carlisle, rest among the wounded. They were shot the day before. They lie next to each other in ICU No. 1 at the Air Force Theater Hospital. The facility is a tent. A series of them, actually. Construction-paper Christmas cards from American schoolchildren decorate the corridors. The ward glows olive green. Ventilators hum off-unison. A persistent bleating hovers underneath conversations. The sound tells the nurses that someone is still alive. On one wall hangs a Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale, a declination of cartoon faces: The first, smiling, reads "No Hurt"; the last, a frown streamed with tears, reads "Hurts Worst." Outside, helicopters drift down in pairs ferrying in the wounded and dead. They are Marines and soldiers; civilians and enemy. When the choppers lift off again, the rotor wash sucks the walls inward and outward. This is a place of morphine calm. Quiet with the gratitude of survival. A scripture hangs over the cots: It reads, "This is a day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it."